Coaching Restraint To The Rule Enforcing Child

Our child is constantly enforcing rules on peers at school, in our neighborhood, and at home with brothers and sisters. It's ruining his friendships and other relationships. Please help.

Some children pride themselves on following rules and gaining the approval of important adults in their lives. They are acutely aware of the difference between right and wrong, and strive to maintain order and control in their behavior. Unfortunately, this self-imposed watch is often extended onto others, such as classmates, peers, siblings, and even adults. Troubles develop when their well-intentioned rule enforcing meets up with the indignant responses of those whom they perceive as breaking the rules. Parental embarrassment, relationship damage, and a backlash of other consequences leave the child feeling confused and misunderstood.

If you've been trying to convince a self-appointed rule enforcer to give up the job consider the following coaching tips:

Emphasize the great work they are doing with watching over their own behavior. Distinguish this rule following from rule enforcing behavior. Assess if they recognize how much they watch and measure the behavior of others. Give examples of when they expressed warnings, disapproval, or simply announced that somebody was acting "against the rules." Discuss the outcomes of such actions to ensure they understand that rule enforcing has negative consequences upon them, and not so much the person they are reporting about. Remind them of how frustrating it is when they land in trouble for revealing the rule breaking of others.

Consider the possible motivations that fuel the child's rule enforcing behavior. Are they trying to solicit approval from teachers /parents, punish others who "get away" with misbehavior they would not permit themselves to follow, or do they rigidly interpret events without a sense of proportion and boundaries? Use your insight into the underlying reasons and gently discuss them with the child. See if any resonate with their own self-awareness. You might discover that they believe they are truly helping other children by reminding them of rules, and if so, this provides opportunity to discuss more appropriate ways to be helpful and caring to their peers.

Draw a continuum of rule breaking behaviors that graphically displays the difference between violations. Provide examples for minor, medium, and serious. Minor might be taking a spoon out of the school cafeteria to dig in the dirt, medium could be cursing, and serious would be talking about hurting someone. Recall real life examples with the child and see how successful they are with placing them in the correct place on the continuum. Once this is complete, write the appropriate action steps to take based upon where a behavior falls on the continuum. Bear in mind that "ignore it" is often linked to minor violations.


Develop a way to quickly convey whether behaviors fall in the minor, medium, or serious zones in the here-and-how of life at home, within the classroom, in the car, etc. Suggest that the child check with you when possible to see if a violation warrants action if they are uncertain about what to do about a violation they witnessed. Impress upon them that most of the time "ignore it for now" is the optimal instruction if they are unable to get feedback from a trusted adult.

Dr Steven Richfield is an author and child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA Contact him at 610-238-4450 or

Ed. note: Detailed information on parenting skills here.

Visit Dr. Steven Richfield's site The Parent Coach, right here at HealthyPlace

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Last Updated: 28 March 2017

Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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