Parents are often bombarded with the message that they have to be in control in the house. Sometimes it’s very authoritarian in that they need to have full control and strict obedience from their children. This is a problem and nothing in research supports this level of authoritarianism except when there are dire circumstances and it’s done to ensure a child stays alive (and there are still psychological consequences). Sometimes it’s based on an idea that it’s best for the children’s well-being. That is, kids want to have us be in charge and so we need to make sure we are. This is actually true and is a very important element of parenting, but sadly there still is some misunderstanding about what it means to be “in charge”.
Often when parents think about being in charge, they do go back to that authoritarian view of children who obey and listen to their parents. If your child is running around screaming, clearly you are not “in control”, right?
And this is one of the most fundamental mistakes we make that can have a negative impact on all parenting. If we do think we’ve lost control or that we simply can’t seem to get it, the answer is often to either give up and end up permissive or to double down on the external control which often includes punishments and fear. In the case of permissive parenting, we end up with children who others call entitled, but who we know to be anxious and trying to simply create a world that makes sense for them. They want all control because they don’t trust others have it. In the case of doubling down, you end up with children who are anxious through fear but also resentful and often defiant, though not always to you, but rather behind your back. In both cases, there is no trust.
Yet trust is essential to being “in control”. So what is it that we mean when we talk about control?
First, let’s look at the types of behaviour that we are often referring to. When people worry about control, we’re thinking of the kids that seem to be running all over their parents and parents find themselves running after them nonstop, feeling exasperated, and spending hours in negotiations as a child simply demands their way. This happens far more often than not and often leads to parents feeling upset and overwhelmed themselves. (Now over time other things may be triggers and certainly they can be affected by things like being hungry and tired. I am not talking about the hungry child who is having a meltdown. That’s hangry and happens to all of us.)
Now, what it is that causes children to act out? Anxiety. A child who is acting out is anxious about something. Importantly, it does not have to be something to do with their home life. This is a misconception and one that is highly detrimental to parents. The cycle may start with a child that is highly anxious about starting school or being in daycare or having a new sibling, and so on. So here we have a child that is acting out because they feel anxious.
The issue is not the cause, but the response to this cause. That is, feeling anxious is a completely normal experience in life for all of us – children through adults. When we don’t know how to cope with our anxiety, we end up acting out in ways that are often inappropriate. For our kids, it’s tantrums and trying to be in control and so on. As adults we may drink too much, smoke, hide away, and so on.
The common response to these behaviours (whether it’s a tantrum, an insistence on having one’s own way all the time, etc.) is to assert our force. We might yell, threaten, chase after our kids. We almost inevitably get angry and visibly show that we are shaken by the events. In short, we show our children that we feel out of control. The very essence of these authoritarian methods is an attempt to regain control when we feel we have none, and our children are far more aware than we give them credit for. They pick up on these feelings and in turn, they realize we aren’t in control.
Now if this happens once in a while, that’s one thing. But for some families – especially when they have a higher needs kid or one who is struggling in many areas – they happen far more frequently. The more frequently these responses happen – the more we lose our cool as parents – the more likely our kids are to try and regain control as they know how. (You can see here for a piece on some of the ways self-soothing presents itself with children and how this need for control is a classic example.)
So what does being in control entail?
Quite simply and quite difficultly, it is remaining calm in the face of chaos. When our children act out and are being as difficult as we think they can be, when we remain calm, we remain their safe space to go to. If we can’t do that and we get angry and snippy, we are no longer a safe haven for a child that is struggling. Of course our kids won’t always come to us during these moments and they may need time, but the more we can be calm and not get sucked into the negativity they feel, then the more trust they will have in us and the more we remain in control.
It’s worth a couple example of what this looks like…
- Your older child is working on something and getting frustrated by it. This frustration leads to anger as she lashes out at you and everyone. When she starts being rude back to your efforts to help, instead of getting angry at her, you take a deep breath and say something like, “I see this is hard for you. I’m here to help when or if you would like me to. I’ll be over here if you’d like to talk to me.” When your child finally is calm enough to come to you, you can talk about what happened and crucially, this is the time to discuss how some behaviours are still disrespectful to others (like being rude) and help your child find alternatives to it.
- If you’re child starts lashing out at others and hurting them, you should focus your energy on those who are affected first. If you need to physically stop your child, you can say something like, “You are hurting X. I don’t think you really want to so I’m going to help you stop.”
- If you find yourself really ready to lose it, it’s okay to tell your child that you need a moment and you’re going to go take some deep breaths and will be back. Acknowledging our emotions is not bad and can serve as a model for our kids.
- Your younger child is refusing to get ready to go out. Won’t put on shoes, clothes, or anything. During the process, your child starts demanding that you stay home and play with certain toys. When you try to calmly explain why you’re going out and what is happening, he just runs away more. Instead of chasing your child and forcing him into clothes or yelling at him to get ready or threatening to take away toys, you calmly sit down and stay quiet. If your child tries to engage you to get you angry, you smile and just tell him that you’re waiting right there. Eventually the energy will be gone, you will have remained in control and you can comfort him, remind him you love him, and get ready to go.
- What if you’re in a hurry? In some cases you may need to pick him up and go to the car, using the same type of explanation about it being hard but you’re going to help him. Acknowledge his emotions and how hard this might be, but that you’ll help him along. When the trip is over and you have the time, focus on the connection and your love for him while also going over different ways to handle his big emotions.
- What if your child is running around in different locations? You may need to just follow your child, but following calmly (or as calmly as possible) is best. If it’s unsafe, you may need to pick up your child and explain that you have to keep them safe so you will help them there. Then focus on connection after.
Notably, children can have this behaviour with one parent and not another. If you notice this in your house, then it’s probably a good time to take a look at how each parent reacts when your child is having a tough time emotionally. If one of you is able to be calm most of the time and be there, but the other struggles with that, that would be the time to work on changing that dynamic for the one parent. Being aware of how hard this is though is something that you need to keep in mind. Many of us loving, aware parents struggle. We struggle because we were never allowed to experience negative emotions. Being upset is seen as “bad” in our society and so having the ability to stand and give space to our kids to experience these feelings is really, really hard. Remember that this is not a sprint but a very long race and so you can only learn and keep trying and eventually it will get easier.
In short, the key to this is to be that rock in the storm that doesn’t move. Everything can be going crazy around you, but if you get sucked into the crazy, children only see that you cannot be trusted to take care of them and so they start to try and write the rules themselves. Thus in many ways control looks like the opposite of what we believe it to be – it comes from the inside and not an external show of force. It is about being strong when our kids are weak and being calm when chaos surrounds our children. But most of all, it is about being able to maintain love when our children make it so difficult.