I have to admit it: I am a recovering control freak.
Of course there are degrees of this freakiness but if one is anywhere on the continuum, it’s time to take a hard look at your behavior, as I did, and understand how it might be hurting rather than helping the child or teenager you love with all your heart. As a provider of counseling and psychotherapy, and especially as a mother, I wrestled for a long time trying to define the word “control” and examine my parenting style to see if it characterized my interactions with my children. Once I began to really understand the devious nature of control, I identified it and went to work on understanding its origin and making changes to my parenting approach.
Controlling can take many forms and most of us shudder at the idea that we would embody this characteristic. We may justify our actions by saying, “but I would do anything for my child,” “I want to make sure he doesn’t get into trouble, “I want her to be more responsible.” Some examples of control may include:
– Offering an abundance of unsolicited “advice” that we think is helpful. This often entails phrases, such as, “you need to …” and “you should …”
– Reminding our children repeatedly to do their homework, chores, tidy their room, eat, not eat, etc.
– Modeling high standards of achievement with the expectation that our kids will attain those standards
– Expecting our children to conform to our cultural notion of politeness, maturity, style of dress
– Having ideas of what is “the right way” to do something—and imposing that on our child
– Expecting our children to suppress their emotion and “stop making a big deal about it,” “get over it,” or “grow up”
– Predominantly praising our children for things that are meaningful to us, e.g. good grades, winning the competition, making the swim team
The paradox here is that parents who use a lot of control tactics are most often responding to an inner sense of anxiety or powerlessness they experienced as children. For example, if a woman, in her own childhood, was praised only when she came home with good grades or was first on the track team, it may be that she learned (consciously or unconsciously) to equate love and acceptance with accomplishment. Thus, getting a child to behave in a certain way may alleviate anxiety or powerlessness parents experienced in their own childhoods—bringing peace of mind, a sense of order and predictability, and often the external recognition they craved as children.
The problem with control is in the insidious messages it sends to a child or young adult: I don’t believe you can be responsible for yourself; you don’t make wise choices; you need me to take care of you. The irony is that our child learns the very powerlessness we ourselves experienced as children, and by which we are still bound.
Isn’t control synonymous with parenting?
The answer is, ‘no.” A parent’s role is to guide, develop, and educate a child so he or she transitions into an adult who is capable of fully functioning in the world and holds him/herself accountable for his/her choices. This is no simple feat, to be sure, and the subject has been worthy of many books. Establishing firm structure, while respecting, inviting, validating, and gently challenging our children are the keys to healthy parenting, as is admitting mistakes. Letting go of control may mean allowing your child to mess things up or fail, both of which, paradoxically, will stand him/her in good stead on the road of life.
If you feel what you’ve read so far resonates for you as a parent, don’t feel hopeless, helpless, or that you have failed your child. It’s never too late to change the patterns of our relating with those we love. Reflect on your own childhood, attempt to identify aspects of controlling behavior, and consider if counseling may be helpful.
Recommended reading on parenting: The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. By John Gottman, Ph.D.
To read about parenting teenagers, specifically, please see my blog, titled: A Few Tips for Surviving Teenage Turbulence.