Dear Caring Parent,
We all encounter this – the one big ‘C’ in parenting. Control. Control is that every present feeling, according to dear Webster, that we have ‘the power to direct behavior or a course of events’. And of course, as parents we do have that power. But wait, do we?
This is my third writing on the alphabet soup of parenting mindsets and behaviors, and by far the hardest. Personally I’ve found control to be a tough part of parenting mindset to work through, to find that right balance on the spectrum of being controlling to not controlling. I know I’m not alone! It’s because we want the best for our children, to keep them safe.
It all starts right from the beginning of parenting, in pregnancy. For me it came in ‘now is the time to get pregnant, let’s do it’. After a few months of the upbeat ‘I’m pregnant’, followed by the deflation of a negative test result, I started to get the idea that this isn’t about my head’s timing. When I let go of that, and listened for what felt like the best time for my husband and I, pregnancy happened a year later with no delays.
I started out thinking I could control the timing of pregnancy. That little episode could have cued me into a lot about parenting! But it took me more learning to see that what we design in our head and attach to as the schedule of events or outcomes, often is not how things shall be!
From our child wearing the clothes we put out, graduating on time, building friendships with who we know would be a great friend, behaving in the grocery store – we want to direct their behavior and thereby influence these, and many more outcomes.
WHAT AFFECTS THIS ONE BIG C IN PARENTING?
First, our daily-do list puts us in such a head space – plotting and planning so that the groceries are in place, the car has gas, the bus tokens are pocketed, the activities that will get them into college are scheduled, the dryer’s emptied, the snacks are available. Parenting’s like being the logistics manager of a 10 track railroad station. It’s head space. This, versus the natural heart space of our children.
Temperaments, the natural propensities with which we’re born, set us up to be more or less controlling. If you and your child are the same, it’s great. When not the same, it’s interesting! For instance, some of us are born with a need to be structured and organized, others are naturally more flexible or mood oriented. This lends itself to different control needs. Things like logistics, expectations of and from others, and all kinds of life experiences get managed differently according to our temperaments.
Mental and physical health can affect our desire to control. Whether it’s ours or our children’s challenge, life gets more prescriptive and at the same time unpredictable. The drive to control it all goes up.
Some everyday triggers affecting how controlling we are includes our history, stress, trauma, having an easily ramped up nervous system, quality of sleep, and our schedules. Just think of those days when your exhausted self rants because of little sleep and your child doesn’t want to put away the dishes. Or your teen got little sleep so wants to stay home from school, on the very day when you have to be somewhere pronto.
Lastly, our expectations of our child’s development through the life’s multitude milestones, not to mention things we want them to like, affects our need to control. We do this and that to affect the outcome.
WE CAN BE OVER OR UNDER CONTROLLING
I’m not here to say any of these are good or bad. It’s in fact all very normal. But sometimes these get, well, out of control. Parents go overboard, get stuck in micromanaging, lose the joy of our relationship with our children, begrudge being ‘run ragged’, and suffer as a parent. Perhaps we’re in too many power struggles. We find ourselves frequently irritated, not satisfied, arguing with our kids more than we want to because we’re missing the spirit of their behavior, having too many committee meetings in our head about ‘how important this is’.
Conversely, some parents may find themselves being under-controlling parents. When we’re like this, we’ve a tendency to avoid conflict, not plan ahead, not ask our children to learn to plan ahead. Under-controlling parents can feel run ragged also, because we aren’t saying ‘no’. We frequently don’t know where our children are. There’s a tendency to give in during conflict. We likely often spend more money on our child than we desired.
Most of us fluctuate on how controlling we are. We move from being over controlling to being under controlling to being just right. It’s worth it to look at if there is something thematic, patterned to when we’re on either end. It’s definitely worth looking at if we’re predominantly on one end or the other of the continuum of parental control. How come?
CAN WE FIND BALANCE WITH THIS ONE C of PARENTING?
I’ve learned that finding our balance with control starts by recognizing that being out of balance is so normal for all the reasons mentioned previously. The key is noticing that you have too much of the signs you’re either over or under controlling. When you notice them, pick a couple from this list of next-steps and have at it:
- What consequences are you afraid of it what you need to have happen doesn’t? What about that is important to you? Is it the end of the world for you child?
- Let them solve the problem and deal with the consequences. This doesn’t mean you don’t ask rehearsal, what-if, questions .
- Engage in their activity but release the outcome.
- Think more about your child’s needs right now, rather than about the future or some cultural norm around development.
- Start noticing what kinds of judgmental things you say to yourself about yourself; i.e. I’m a dummy, I can’t manage this kid, I just have to put the screws to them better, I just don’t know what to do. . .Convert it – I’m smart enough, I can manage, putting the screws isn’t working, I can find out what to do.
- Get professional help. If you don’t have someone, I work with parents on this.
- How controlling were your parents like with you? Are you reacting by totally going the opposite way with your children?
- Go back to the section above on what affects the one big C of parenting. What pops out at you? What is your next step with it?
WHAT I LEARNED THROUGH EXPLORING THIS BIG C in Parenting
This one big C in Parenting is not formulaic. It’s a dialogue; between you and yourself, you and your children, you and trusted others. I have learned a lot by paying attention to how control has factored into my parenting. I’ve learned:
- When things aren’t working out, I need to sit with me and my control stuff.
- It’s often me in the way of progress because guess what, being controlling!
- Providing control creates safety. Once me and my child have discussed the safety need (either brought up by them or you) it works better.
- Boundaries are important – mine and theirs.
- I simply can’t control life, ultimately. I can have a say in it, but not control it.
- While I couldn’t/can’t control what I’d have to learn about. But I do control that I do the learning.
- To have compassion for my control tendency in parenting, because it’s out of the heart of wanting a good, loving life for my precious one
- Sometimes I can flip the control switch off. Sometimes it takes contemplation; exploring, listening, getting my OM on, and remembering my vision of me and my kiddo later in life. Then I can finally get the switch off.
- I do have a lot of control as a parent. And yet I have none. In between those two ends it’s important HOW I control.
If you struggle with this, don’t be surprised – I hear many parents thinking it over. You can determine what’s best in your situation in a way that keeps the love going between you and your child, even if the outcome isn’t what you wanted. I know this to be true from my own experience and from the many, many parents that have included me in unfolding their parenting experience.