Contemplations on Control: How we make (good) decisions

Some people have trouble making good decisions. Boundaries are a challenge and saying “no” feels impossible. For others, they are quite comfortable making decisions. They might even enjoy telling others what choices they should make. Parents often feel a need to tell children what to do all the time. They believe that children can’t or won’t make a good choice. As we contemplate the elements of control in our lives, we want to find that balance between laissez faire attitudes and acting like a control freak. 

Making choices, even bad ones is a way to feel powerful. Many children and adults will act in the opposite manner just to feel some form of power in their own lives. Authority figures are seen as untrustworthy, no matter how experienced or wise they might be. That isn’t the point for a person who feels powerless. Control and the defiance that often comes with it feels like the only way to find power or freedom.

We value the freedom that can come through choices. It is one of America’s highest personal values. Unfortunately, freedom to do anything one wants, whenever one wants to do it, and not expect any real consequences is not true freedom. True freedom comes when we exercise self-control. 

Ask Dr. Seuss, if you don’t believe me:

You have brains in your head,

You have feet in your shoes,

You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.

Sound advice. The trick is choosing the right direction! 

Parents want children to listen and obey because they have more experience dealing with the complexities of life. Children want to assert their control in order to better know themselves. There are specific stages where this most evident, like in 2-3-year-old toddler stage and the 13-17 years of adolescence. The reason these ages and stages are so fraught with power struggles is because the child is going through rapid brain growth, hormonal changes, and social/emotional demands. That requires a lot of self-assertion in order to master it all. 

As I have already described in other blog posts, a parents job should resemble a coach more than a director. While this isn’t always possible or practical, it is the healthier approach to successful parenting. A parent TELLS a child what to do. Children can’t become responsible human beings or eventual adults if they rely on parents what to do. Parents can expect more self-responsibility and problem-solving if they don’t let the child make choices. 

A parent coach offers choices in order to empower children to learn from their choices. Isn’t this how we all learn? Of course, understanding this approach and performing it in the heat of the “battle” is difficult but that isn’t a reason not to use it. The good news is that the drive to choose is built into our nervous systems. You don’t have to tell a child to have an opinion. They already have one. You don’t have to model how to prefer for one type of food over the other or one game over the other. The child just does this naturally. Coaching allows us to direct what is already inborn. Parents should let it work to their advantage!

Forcing control, although at times necessary, shouldn’t be our primary parenting plan. Parents can give choices for things they approve of…usually two is good. If the child wants a third option, and they will, simply repeat the two choices and when the situation becomes a game, and it will, make the choice for the child. This is where parents can be direct and assert their wills. Pick your battles well in other words.

Researchers on control like to use the words “agency” or “self-efficacy”. I guess it sounds more clinical. The more agency we use in life the more power-full we feel. The more good decisions we make, the more confident we are to try new and more challenging things. Good deciders set bigger goals in life than bad deciders. They get along better with other people, can be better team players, have higher academic achievements and work ethics, and they are healthier and happier people overall. 

That all sounds good until you make a few bad choices and start to believe that you don’t have the ability to make a good choice, ever! People who go through trauma often feel this way. Depression is a common hallmark of making bad choices or having gone through bad things. This is what researchers call “locus of control”. Someone with an internal locus of control believes they are the cause of a successful outcome. An extern locus of control refers to things happening by chance or luck. After a traumatic event or series of events, a person can feel helpless and have an external locus of control. If something good does happen, it is random and accidental.

It is possible to have an “illusion of control” where someone feels they can master things they really can’t. They don’t have an overdeveloped internal locus of control and may take on too many tasks or make claims of being able to accomplish tasks that are too difficult. They are ready to accept responsibility for success but blame others/events for failures. This illusion prevents them from really learning how to be successful in life. Much of wisdom comes from making mistakes and then trying a new approach next time. 

The answer to all of this may be acceptance of reality. This is a philosophical idea and spiritual practice of letting go of expectations and desires that create most of our on-going suffering. When something happens that we don’t want or we don’t get what we do want, we suffer. The truth is everyone does this and everyone suffers. Acceptance allows us to be aware of it and adapt. We don’t blame others for our mistakes or at least, our part of a situation/problem. We are humble and try to find the wisdom of our failures. We don’t allow others to control us and we don’t use control to deal with anxiety. We simply allow what is to be and find the truth in the experience. As the Bible says, “Truth sets us free” (John 8:32). 

Acceptance isn’t another form of helplessness, however. We accept our situation but continue to hope for change. Christians, for example, trust that God’s will, however difficult or uncertain, is the better choice over their own personal will. When the two wills conflict, we submit to God’s will. Continue to control people and events, in order to get what you want, alienates family and friends, and puts tension between your reality and your desire to have what you want. This tension will result in negative emotions and behaviors. Learning to accept and let go will allow using that energy to make the best of your situation. Now that does require self-control!

“Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” Eckhart Tolle

“Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” William James

“The art of acceptance is the art of making someone who has just done you a small favor with that he might have done you a greater one.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

>> Learn more about “Acceptance and Change” in our Freedom From Anxiety course at http://FamilyHealer.tv

>> Invite Ron Huxley to speak at your next event by contacting him at rehuxley@gmail.com or 805-709-2023. 

Contemplations on Control: Rebellious Teens

Whenever we think about the challenges of parents, there is probably nothing more colorful than the problem of a rebellious teenager. Trying to control an out-of-control adolescent can drive a parent crazy!

I want to do a series of blog posts that address the issue of control through the spiritual discipline of contemplation. Contemplation is the act of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time. It is a deeper reflection on the motives and desires of our heart…and out teenagers.

Control, by nature, forces us to react to external behaviors. In the case of a “rebellious teen,” we are faced with unpleasant back take, arguments, manipulations, curses, eye rolls, blank stares, aggression, lying, stealing, and other acts that defy our rules and our morals. 

As we contemplate this, ask yourself the following questions: 

“What am I trying to control?” 

“Am I trying to control out-of-control behavior?”

“Do I want to win? At whatever the cost?” 

“Is it possible to have two winners and no losers?”

“Is it really my mission to dominate the will of another person?” 

“What is the long-term goal of parenting: relationship or being right?”

“What is better: A change of heart or a change of behavior?”

The idea of attempting to control someone who is out-of-control sounds like a war in the making. How can the two things approach one another? Control that is viewed as a way ends us with no winners. Parenting is not a competition. You do not have to always be right or win every battle. In fact, why is parenting even seen as a battle? There must be something deeper than this relational reality.

If you make two lists with all the things that a parent can realistically control on one side and all the things that parents cannot control in their teenager’s life, you begin to see the discrepancy in the lists. Parents who focus on the child’s side of the list will be more frustrated than those who stick to their own side. 

Control can be a negotiation. There are things on the parent’s side of the list that the teenager wants and there are things on the side of the teen’s list that the parent wants. There is room for negotiation and working together toward a common goal. 

A common area of power on the parent’s side of the list is transportation. The teen needs to get places and the parent has control of the car. An easy trade-off can be negotiated. Chores completed can result in transportation to a friends house, for example. There doesn’t need to be loud, angry words shared back and forth. Just a simple, direct offer to trade chores for transportation. Don’t react to “moodiness”, eye rolling, or slamming doors. I know it’s hard. Focus on the bigger lessons here. 

What parent really want is to see their teen make “good choices.” Choices imply a sense of power that allows the child to try and choose between good and bad and learn from that experience. This is how the neural software gets its updates: experiences, good ones and bad ones. Suffering natural consequences can be painful to watch, for the parent, but it allows teens to mature and grow up. 

What teenagers want is power over their lives. In reflection, it would seem the parent and the child are working toward the same goal. The parent wants their teen to have the power to make good choices. The failure in this contemplation is that teens view it differently. They want the power to do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want, without consequences. This is their immature view of adulthood. As adults, we know this is just fantasy. The negative consequences of these kinds of choices taught us that power is really about managing ourselves well. Negative consequences will teach our teens too if we let it. 

Control is about communication. Parents believe that they are clear and perhaps they are but continuing to clearly state expectations and needs may have to be repeated. There are split moments of gentle normalcy where parent and teens can really communicate. Use those moments to understand the child’s needs and struggles. Don’t use it to lecture or give advice. Listen and learn to give you more control. Control is knowing how to meet the needs of the child in a way they can cooperate with you. 

Powerless people feel like they have no power, so they engage in power struggles to get more power. Power-full people know they are powerful and learn to manage themselves. Powerless people must be empowered to know they are power-full too. 

Power is believed to be unequal. Some people have more than others. In most situations, this is true but in terms of power being about managing ourselves, and not managing others, it is fairly distributed to everyone. Teenagers see parents as having all the power. Therefore they believe they must take it from parents by rejecting them, defying them, and manipulating them. The result in continuous power struggles. What a hard view of the world to have! 

Focus on problems when in the heat of the power struggle. Parents who focus on the person exaggerate the struggle. Ask the child what is the problem and how do they want to solve it. Control is coaching a child to a logical conclusion even if it means trying answers to the problem, the parent already knows won’t work. Let them try. Let go of the tug-of-war rope and join the child on their side of the circumstance and ask coaching questions to help the teen see the choices, that give true power, to help them learn how to make good ones. 

In the end, control is an illusion. We have no control over anyone else. It is a common reaction to feelings of fear and anxiety. The higher our anxiety, the more we attempt to control. The more we feel out-of-control, the more we work to find some area that we can create control. It is the source of our obsessions and compulsions. It creates power struggles in relationships. It concentrates on being right over relationships. It disconnects instead of connects families. Take notice of the areas in life that feel controllable and those that feel out-of-control. Examine the feelings that come with each. Choose to respond and not react to those feelings. Don’t allow the negative lies that feeling out-of-control tries to tell you: You are a bad parent, You are a failure, You are not loved or respected, You are not safe, You can’t trust anyone but yourself, You are destined to feel horrible and lonely. Find alternative truths to declare over yourself to counter these false beliefs. They may not feel true but feelings are not the truth. Control is managing your beliefs which will, in turn, manage your feelings. 

Keeping Love Alive Loving Through Difficult Times

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

How we love family members during the emotional distances and dark shadows of our relationships determine the long-term quality of those relationships. All relationships have ups and downs and our ability to ride out the extremes is challenging but a normal process of loving others. At the heart of the dark moments, we want to abandon the roller coaster ride for the firm safety of the ground. Our inner brains want us to fight or flee or if both of these options fail us, to freeze internal emotional reality. How do we overcome the turbulence and deep disconnect for the long haul?

One truth is to develop our identity and remind ourselves that relationship in not contained in the ups and downs but over the entire course of life. Look for the long tail of relationships and how to keep a spark alive even if it just nurture by you and not the other. The fight or flight mechanism of the brain wants us to rush our actions or re-actions when we really need to do in these crucibles is slow down and evaluate our choices. My best advice to families in the middle of chaos is to slow down but that is one of the hardest things to do. Many fail in the attempt.

A lot of my therapeutic work is with adoptive families. Many times the early life trauma results in an out-of-control teenager that ultimately forces the parent to consider residential care. They believe they have failed as parents and the relationship feels like it has ended. The truth is that relationship trumps residence. Your connection is stretchier than you thought. You may have to make a decision to create distance to ensure safety but you are not letting go of the relationship. You are protecting it and that is very different.

Because we like “up” moments filled with laughter and hugs and emotional closeness and hate the “down” moments with its harsh words, self-pity, victimization, and loneliness, we can start a rocking motion that swings faster and faster between the ups and downs. Pushing on one side and then the other increases chaos that throws everyone off the see-saw entirely.

When I work with bitter couples, hurt by infidelity and emotional rejection, I ask them to step off the see-saw, remember what attracted them to each other, the values they used to believe and to forgive one another. Too many nurture the wound and do not receive the healing. It is difficult to forgive but unforgiveness is like a poison that kills the heart of the relationship. It doesn’t say what was done was acceptable or that I will “forget and forgive”. You do not forget but you must forgive to allow life to start up again. From here we rebuild new creations that last.

Give up the illusion of control. You cannot control anyone else. You only have 100%, guaranteed results with yourself. You must manage you. Controlling your reactions is what allow the extreme ups and downs to settle and become smooth again. Take 5 to keep your relationship alive and pause to consider your best long-term actions. Take 10 and then reconsider again. If you need to make a hard, drastic decision, it is better to take the time to think it through completely vs. carrying a weight of regret.

Identity is the most important ingredient in loving through the distance.  Victim-minded people seek their identity through others instead of operation from a place of a sense of self. If I need you in order to be me and you are the source of my hurt and pain, then I cannot manage me that doesn’t exist. I cannot sustain a relationship that is one-sided. Start a journey of knowing yourself and your needs and your drives and your desires to deal with others in the distant relationships. Operating FROM a place of identity allows you to remain you even if others reject you. A simple starting place is journaling or talking to a therapist.

A final truth is that love is unconditional. It doesn’t have to agree with the other person’s actions or allow it to continue damaging the family but it doesn’t have to turn off. It can continue from a safer distant to provide an opportunity to bring it into closer intimacy. We don’t turn off love when others don’t do what we want. That is false power. Real power says I can set a boundary and I can exist without you but I choose to continue to love you. If you do not choose the same than I will remain me and love myself and others too.

Your Child’s Mess Is Your Message

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

Many parents use control to manage their children’s behavior. Why wouldn’t they with parenting books and programs teaching them to do that very thing? Unfortunately, control is risky business, that when it works, leaves parent and child uncertain about who really won the battle. Rather than try to control a child, parents need to encourage self-control. This develops from taking responsibility for their actions and learning to clean up their own messes when they make them and make them, they will. This is where the mess becomes the message!

After a child makes a mess, such as hitting a sibling, lying to parents, not completing their chores, they need to figure out a way to clean it up. Messes create disconnection in relationships but cleaning them up re-connects them. The process of discovering how to clean them up is where a child learns self-control and parents find more joy in parenting. 

Parents do not get angry at messes. They require their child to clean up their mess. Because of age and inexperience, they may not be able to come up with a solution but one can be offered, by the parent, or they can try their own and then another try until the mess is completed. Parents who feel powerless don’t realize that they control the environment of the home. Children always want or need something and parents can simply state: “Of course you can have a snack sweetie as soon as you clean up that mess you make with your brother. And, by the way, I took out the trash for you since you were too busy playing video games and so you can do my chore of folding all the laundry. Take your time sweetie, the snack will be there when you are done.” 

Instead of a snack, the child may want to sit go to the neighbors to play or go to the shoe store to get new shoes or sit down with the family for dinner. The child can decide how long they want to take to clean up their messes and get the things that the parent has control over. Never fear, arguments, tantrums, screaming fits and vows of running away may be involved. They are ways the child believes he or she can control the parent. Parents must be patient and model how control is an illusion for them as much as it was for the parent. This information will serve them well in all their relationships for life. 

The good news is that this process will only take a few times (days?) until the child realized the parent means what they say and discovers cleaning up a mess is so much easier than testing the parents resolve. 

For more information, check out http://www.lovingonpurpose.com/podcast/ or https://www.loveandlogic.com/