The Sassy Psychologist: Back-to-school special - A behind-the-scenes look into the controlling parent

In order to treat the anxiety of many of my clients, we often discuss the nature and patterns of their interpersonal relationships - you know, how they relate and interact with other people. And there is one tendency, above many others, that is at the heart of an anxiety problem.  There is one tendency that easily causes and/or perpetuates an anxiety condition. What is this tendency? Well, it’s the tendency to control. I, especially, see a lot of controlling parents, and given that it’s back-to-school time, there’s no better moment to discuss this. Let’s talk.

I see parents, for example, who are preoccupied with their kids’ grades. Look, I understand that parents want their children to do well in school but there is a limit to maintain for the benefit of your sanity. You cross into the land of unhealthy behavior when you, for example: demand the quiz schedule, chaperone study time, immediately ask for quiz results, or impulsively give intense feedback. Other examples of things parents might attempt to control relentlessly are their children’s wardrobe, eating behaviour, or social agenda.

If any of this sounds like you or somebody you know, it’s time to get to the bottom of it, pronto!

Let’s start with the idea of control. What is control? Control means having an influence on the course and outcome of something. Now think about that for a second. When you are attempting to control a situation, you desire power over the outcome of said situation. In other words, you want authority over how something ends.

Having said that, my follow up questions are: Why must you exercise power over your kids’ study habits, and/or grades, and/or wardrobe, and/or food intake, and/or social agenda? What are you so afraid of?  What outcome are you trying to avoid and why are you giving yourself an anxiety condition in the process? Why the relentless controlling? Why the intensity? Why the desperation?  

The answer: Because of your own issues!  You are imposing your wounds on your kids and it’s not okay. This is your schtick and it does not belong to your children.  Behaving in an unhealthy controlling manner indicates that your wounds are getting in the way of your children’s development! And in attempting to control outcomes, you are forcing your unhealthy standards on them.  You must realize that you have distorted catastrophic beliefs about things like, low grades, wardrobe decisions, outward appearances, eating behaviour, and social choices (and/or other things).  Ouch. Sucks right.  Let’s get rid of this.

Treating anxiety related to rigid superhuman standards involves scrutinizing your catastrophic beliefs.  Here are some questions you might ask yourself:

For control related to test grades:

- Why must I insist that my son get exceptional grades?  What do I believe about lower grades?  Might I have a limited view of the future for someone who has low grades? 

- In questioning my clients like this, we often discover beliefs such as, “Grades are everything.  Obtaining lower grades will ultimately lead to failure in life.”  These are distortions.

- Solution: Let your kids decide how to study and allow for natural consequences to occur.  You will survive.

For control related to wardrobe:

- Why must I insist that my daughter dress in this specific manner?  What do I believe about dressing this way?  Might I be preoccupied with appearances?  What does one’s wardrobe symbolize to me?

- In questioning my clients like this, we often discover beliefs such as, “The way you look is important and the way people see you is important.  Dressing appropriately means looking acceptable and people will have negative judgements if an outfit is not suitable.” These are distortions.

- Solution: After teaching and guiding them, let your kids decide how to dress and allow for natural consequences to occur.  You will survive. 

For control related to eating behaviour:

- Why must my kid unfailingly eat everything I give him? What do I believe will happen if he does not listen to me on this matter? Is it possible that I might have rigid beliefs about eating habits? What is so catastrophic about my kid not eating what I tell him to?

- In questioning my clients like this, we often discover beliefs like, “I know what’s best – I know what my kids must ingest. If they do not eat in the way I insist, they will not grow as strong or as smart.” These are distortions.

- Solution: After teaching and guiding them, let you children decide what and how to eat.  Allow for natural consequences to occur. You will survive.

For control related to social life:

- Why must my daughter accept all invitations given to her by her peers? What do I believe about my daughter meeting people or having many friends? Might I be imposing my desires of having a good social life, on my daughter? What is so wrong about denying some invitations?

- In questioning my clients like this, we often discover beliefs like, “Not accepting invitations means you are rejected someone. If you reject someone, they will abandon you and you will have no friends.” These are distortions.

- Solution: After teaching and guiding them, let your children decide how to live their lives in the social sphere. Allow for natural consequences to occur.  You will survive.

For control related to anything and everything else: Rinse and repeat similar questioning and solutions.

As you can see, the foundation of rigid, relentless, and desperate control is distorted thinking. It is up to you to a) admit to your controlling nature, and b) question the motive behind your desperation. Acknowledging and facing your feared outcomes and situations is the key to reducing your desire to control and to finally letting go. So many people ask me what they need to do to finally “let go.” The answer is, to begin accepting the possibility that your most feared outcome just might come true… and, to your surprise, you will actually be okay. 

Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.

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