Losing Parental Control: Reducing the Struggle — excerpt from Losing Control, Finding Serenity
Shutterstock image by Larisa Lofitskaya
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
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).
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
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.
below some factors that will assist in determining whether
parental control is excessive.
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
“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!”
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
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.
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
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
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