Losing Parental Control: Reducing the Struggle — excerpt from Losing Control, Finding Serenity


Shutterstock image by Larisa Lofitskaya

(The following is the second excerpt from Losing Control, Finding Serenity. Read the first excerpt. Read the second excerpt.)

Victoria never played soccer herself, but she became an avid fan of the sport in a short amount of time. Soccer brought out Victoria's competitive spirit. When her twelve-year-old son, Tim, made the all-star AYSO team, Victoria was only too happy to take him to the two weekday practices and the weekend games. Tim loved playing, and he worked hard to improve his game. He was making steady progress, but this was not fast enough for Victoria. In her mind, Tim was not trying hard enough. She believed that he needed to be more aggressive to reach the "next level." Nothing irked her more than to see another player beat her son to the ball.

And so Victoria, ever the controller, constantly pushed Tim to be more aggressive on the field. Her shouts could be heard above everyone else's. Tim complained to his mom that she was distracting him during the game. But this didn't deter her. During one important tournament game, Victoria loudly criticized Tim in front of the other parents for backing off some bigger opponents. Tim was so embarrassed that he walked off the field crying, right in the middle of the game. He told Victoria he didn't want to play anymore.

Unfortunately, such stories are all too common in childhood sports. To see what's really at stake, just go to a league game in almost any sport and witness who suffers most from a loss and who takes longer to get over it! Here's a clue: it is not the child.

Excessive parental control extends well beyond the playing field. It pervades the classroom, artistic performance, religious observance, childhood friendships, and social activities, all with equally troubling consequences.

Parental Control: Crossing the Line

Parental control comes in a variety of forms, many appropriate and some not: assertive (commands, discipline), gentle (persuading and cajoling), vocal (shouting and yelling), passive (withdrawal and abandonment), emotional (shaming), and physical (hitting and spanking).

There is no question that control is an integral part of parenting. I like to refer to appropriate forms of parental control as parental authority or parental guidance. These forms of control are essential not only for a child's health and safety but also for fostering a child's morals, family values, and ethics; social manners and etiquette; and learning. Indeed, parental authority is fundamental to a healthy parent-child relationship, and parents would be irresponsible not to exercise it.

The key is knowing when parental control crosses the line and becomes harmful. Domineering parental control in most cases is unhealthy and even harmful to children. It is also counterproductive. The extreme case, of course, is when a parent emotionally or physically demeans or abuses the child, but much less intense forms can also impact the child's well-being. Admittedly, the distinction between appropriate parental authority and parental domination is not always clear. Generally speaking, domineering control is usually triggered by a parent's own motives, ego, fears, and anxieties. And while there are occasions when strong control measures may be necessary and justified, care should always be taken not to harm a child's natural spirit.

I describe below some factors that will assist in determining whether parental control is excessive.

Am I Obstructing My Child's Personal Growth and Life Path?

Parental control becomes harmful when a child's personal growth and life path is obstructed by the parent. I firmly believe that every child is unique, with his or her own (and, I believe, God-given) nature, talents, and life journey, and a parent's role is to foster that. I thus try to remember that it is "thine journey, not mine." When we try too hard to influence or change our children's intrinsic nature and life path, we risk not only diminishing our children but also driving them away — emotionally and physically. This is not to say that a parent should not encourage and share in the joy of a child's growth and development and achievements. Simply put, parental involvement should be supportive and loving, rather than motivated by a parent's unfulfilled dreams, social standing, and the like.

One parent explained it to me this way: "I realized that my anxiety about Amber was mine, not hers, and that I really can't influence her life. I tried, and it doesn't work that way. It's a giant waste of time. It was only when I learned to let go that good things happened with her.

"Amber has her own life journey, and I don't want to take that away from her. She will do what she does on her own time. She was late in learning to crawl and I was really concerned about that, so I tried all kinds of things to teach her to crawl, without success. Then I just stopped doing that, and she started crawling two weeks later. The same thing with her piano lessons. I wanted her to learn classical music, and she kept resisting. So I stopped giving her lessons. A few years later after a voice lesson she started playing a few chords on the piano, and before I knew it she was avidly learning how to play the piano to accompany her singing. Same thing happened with school. Amber was always a typical B student, and I fretted that she wasn't going to get into college. Then in the eighth grade, on her own, she started studying more and getting straight As.

"I am now very clear that my role is to love and care for her, support her, keep her as safe as I can, and let go of just about everything else. And what joy Amber gives me!"

losing-control-cover.jpgWhat Is My Motive?

It is important to consider the motive behind parental control actions. For example, is it to satisfy the ego or needs of the parent — including avoiding possible embarrassment — or to serve the higher need of the child? Parental pressure for children to do better or perform better is often based on parents' egos rather than on enhancing a child's self-esteem. Sports, competitions, and performance are popular arenas for control-driven parental egos. Many parents push their children to excel in music, sports, or academics, for example, to where the child feels overburdened and overstressed. The parent becomes the taskmaster who insists on performance well beyond the child's abilities. It seems that nothing the child achieves or does is good enough. Such domination most often adversely impacts performance; the child may clam up or even panic because he or she is not calm and relaxed enough to perform to his or her ability. Taken to the extreme, such domination can trigger resentment and rebellion.

Is My Way the Right Way?

As parents, we often believe that what has worked for us in our own lives — or the ways we were taught by our parents — is equally good for our children. This is not necessarily true. Take my friend Sandra, whose parents were very "old school" regarding piano lessons. They hired a demanding, humorless instructor who relentlessly hammered Sandra with "proper" technique. Sandra became quite proficient but never truly enjoyed playing piano. Yet, Sandra, without giving it a second thought, constantly hovered over her own daughter, Lisa, when she was learning to play piano. Eventual result: Lisa stopped playing piano altogether.

Genetics aside, our children are not nearly as much like us as we think. Yes, they look and act like us in varying ways, but they are very different from us. This point was powerfully driven home to me when I pressured my daughter Lana (then ten years old) to prepare for an important test. I wanted her to do it the way I had done it in school (making study notes, outlining the material, etc.), not by listening to loud rock music. She promptly responded: "Daddy, I'm different than you. I can't do it that way. Listening to music helps me study better."

I was immediately taken aback by the simple truth of what she said. Lana really is different than me, and vastly so. She studies for tests and does her homework differently than I did. She budgets her time differently than I did. She keeps her room and desk much differently than I did. She also has many different interests and talents than I had. After all, who am I to say that my way is the best way — for her? My way is just a way, nothing more. It worked for me, but that doesn't mean it works for my child.

Over time I came to learn that I serve my children best when I act as a loving mentor and supporter and, when necessary, as their protector. I accomplish this best when I am willing to lose some control and allow them to make their own choices and bear the results and consequences of those choices. Moreover, I try to offer advice only when they seek my counsel, and interestingly, they seek it much more when I don't volunteer it.

Is My Control Fear Based?

We have already seen how fear is a prime control generator in most life arenas, and no less so when striving to be a responsible parent. We are afraid that harm will come to our children if we loosen the reins or let them fend for themselves. We don't trust they will make the right choices. We do not want our children to make the same mistakes as we did. We are thus prone to do more when less is better.

Much of the time, we have difficulty separating the facts from the nightmares that our emotions script for our children. It is always helpful to consider how important the issues really are. What is truly at stake? Is it a crisis or just a minor disturbance? Consider whether you have to do anything right away and what might happen if you don't intervene. Many problems concerning our children are not crises and resolve themselves with the simple passage of time — as long as we don't interfere.

Some Final Thoughts

Today many parents are frustrated and distressed because they feel they have lost control of their children. Things have gotten too out of hand for many — and for some, alarmingly so. The natural inclination for such parents is to become more controlling in their efforts to contain the damage. Hence, they typically become more demanding, punishing, resistant, and closed-minded in their interactions with their children, unwittingly exacerbating the problem.

To these parents, I would offer that the chance for success in regaining control of your children lies instead in losing forceful parental control over them by learning to accept "what is" within the context of your specific situation, and working within that essential parameter. This means that you must accept — for now, at least — that you are powerless over (and cannot change) certain factors within your child's life and within your relationship with your child, and instead devote your time and energy to improving those things over which you do have some control, or which you can change. The latter includes your attitudes, expectations, reactions, and engagements with respect to your children, as well as confronting and defusing your own fears, anxiety, and anger.