A tree that is unbending is easily broken. – Lao Tzu
I am not the most flexible person.
When I am in the middle of something, I like to finish what I’m doing before moving on to something else.
If I have plans and they go awry, it takes time for me to recommit to Plan B.
If I ask my children to do something, kindly and respectfully, like the authoritarian parents of previous generations, I expect them to do it and when they don’t, I tend to use power plays to “get my way.” (Read Encouraging Children to Listen for a better way.).
And I used to be even worse.
When my daughter, our first child, was young, I thought I could control things that were out of my control – her behavior, her sleep habits, her expressions of emotion. When her spirited personality clashed with my introverted one, and I had used up all of my reserves of patience and motherly affection, I would fall back into more authoritarian parenting tactics. Not every time. Not all the time. But enough. Enough for me to remember and hope she doesn’t.
These days, I am more aware of what falls under my sphere of control (partially from repeating, “You can’t make other people do things; the only person you can control is yourself” to my daughter for years). Through my journey to live a more conscious life, I have become more flexible in some areas. I have learned to accept things as they are and not force them to bend to my will. I have learned not to react so dramatically to things that would previously have caused me upset. I have learned to catch myself in knee-jerk reactions and pause to choose a more thoughtful response.
But not always.
I still sometimes give in to frustration and disappointment when my carefully laid plans are threatened by an inconvenient melt-down. I still find myself trying to control situations outside my control. I still feel a distinct sense of unease when I feel powerless in my parenting.
But I realize that this need for control and lack of flexibility is a detriment. It is a detriment to my relationship with my children. It is a detriment to a growth-oriented mindset. It is a detriment to my desire to live a more conscious life.
But the worst part of it is that my four-year-old has turned into a mini-dictator who appears to feel actual, physical pain when asked to say something nicely, and who has heaps of pre-school control issues, and I’m just a little bit afraid that she might have gotten some of that from me.
And so, in April of my More Conscious Year, I am going to work on being more flexible, less rigid, in my everyday life.
Control vs. a Sense of Control
A sense of control, if not actual control, is a deep psychological need, not just for me, but for people in general. A sense of control allows people to feel safe and secure; it allows them to move forward in their lives with predictability.
Feeling out-of-control, or in a situation that is out-of-control, can lead to feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and fear. According to social scientists, this aversion to feelings of helplessness and powerlessness and desire for control is so strong, that people will make things up or find patterns where there are none, in order to regain a sense of control.
Our need for a sense of control can be traced back to our evolutionary roots when our survival depended on a sense of control over our environment. When we feel in control, we are at less risk of danger. When we feel in control, we feel safe. When we feel out-of-control, our mental and physical health can suffer.
And yet, a sense of control over our lives and the desire to control everything in our lives are very different things.
A sense of control over the things we can actually control – our own behavior, our reactions to others behavior, how, and with whom, we choose to spend our time and energy – is positive. But attempts to control other people and other things outside of our actual control, more often than not leads to unhappiness, rather than the security (and following happiness) we are hoping to attain by maintaining control (according to Psychology Today Article, Let Go, Be Happy).
Effects of Controlling Parenting
This need for control, or a sense of control, can also enter our parenting. According to the author of Five Things You Can and Can’t Control as a Parent, many parents attempt to control their children’s behaviors because of societal pressure or their own fear. Denny Hagel, founder of Awakened Parenting, explains that perceived lack of control is a common cause of parental frustration. Parents can become so focused on their child’s behavior that they are unable to see the larger picture and only feel the need to win the power struggle.
In her post, Let’s Stop Controlling and Start Listing to Children, Parent Coach Shelly Birger Phillips says that when parents force children to submit to their authority, they send the message that they are the more powerful ones and their children’s ideas, thoughts, and desires don’t matter. By controlling, parents teach children to submit to another’s will and not think for themselves. Authoritarian, or overly powerful, parenting robs children of their psychological autonomy, by telling children what to do, what to think and how they should feel. Kids parented in this manner may be relatively well-behaved, but they also tend to be less resourceful, have poorer social skills, and lower self esteem.
While I don’t consider myself a controlling parent in a lot of ways, I have realized that it is my fall-back parenting strategy when I am over-tired, stressed or overwhelmed, and all of the above is motivation enough to want to make a change.
Ways to Practice More Flexible (Respectful) Parenting
Week 1: Awareness of the Bigger Picture
Following the adage that our children are mirrors of ourselves, I want to use my daughters controlling behavior as a wake-up call to be more conscious of my own words and actions towards my children (and my spouse) when I am under stress. I want to bring awareness to these moments when I use power inappropriately, to see the bigger picture of the unintentional example I may be setting.
For any of you who may be practicing your own flexibility, bringing awareness to your use, or misuse of power, in all areas of your life is a good start to affecting change. Additionally, noting the areas of your life for which you actually have control and reflecting on them in these moments can help to shift your perspective. In her article, How to Let Go of Control Issues, the author suggests making a conscious list of the things in life that you have control over, and later when you find yourself trying to exert control over something, she suggests returning to the list (mentally) to hep bring your focus to what you can control.
Week 2: Be Proactive
Making self-care a priority is key to a sense of control over your life. When we are rested, exercised, relaxed, we are more likely to feel in control and to be in control of our responses.
Additionally, working on my relationship with my daughter to prevent power struggles, may help prevent the occasions where we find ourselves in a power struggle. In her article on power struggles, Denny Hagel advises parents to work to convey to their children that they are a resource for help, guidance and support from an early age, to foster a teamwork mentality, rather than a “you against them” mentality. She explains that parents can do this by reacting consciously and supportively when children make mistakes; she states, when children make mistakes, how you react will determine your child’s perception of you as supporter or opponent.
This week I am going to work on meeting my goals for self-care and work to consciously build a less adversarial relationship with my daughter.
Week 3: Choose a Conscious Response
In her article Let Go of Control: How to Learn the Art of Surrender, psychologist Amy Johnson notes that sometimes it can be as easy as noticing that you are in control mode and choosing to let go, consciously surrendering to the moment. She describes how when she finds herself in a situation where she is trying to impose her will, she imagines that she is in a canoe paddling upstream, against the current. She then pictures the boat turning around, dropping the oars, and floating downstream, or simply reminding herself to “let go of the oars,” to shift her perspective.
This week, I am going to try to use Amy’s technique, or simply ask myself “Where is the power?” when I find myself trying to exert control, to reminding myself that my job is to help my children feel powerful not powerless.
Week 4: Practicing Surrender
When dealing with more difficult situations, Amy Johnson, recommends asking yourself the following questions, “What am I afraid will happen if I let go of control?” “Could this really happen? And if it could, how bad could it actually be?” Parent Coach Shelly Birger Phillips recommends taking a step back and watching what happens when we stop trying to control things (situations, people, children) and see what happens; to get in the habit of following the lead of others and surrendering to the moment.
Following this combined advice, this week, I am going to try “surrendering to the moment,” facing my fears of “what could happen,” and seeing if I can’t let the reality of what unfolds help me to become a more flexible parent.
(For more on letting go of control for parents see Control Less, Trust More).
What about you? Do you have issues with power and control that you would like to work through? Do you notice yourself falling back into a certain, less, conscious way of parenting or being when you are over-tired or over-stressed? Do you have any techniques that have helped you make a more positive shift in these times? If so, I’d love to hear from you!
I’d love to hear if you find anything in this series helpful. I am writing a lot that I want to do personally, but I am hoping that some of the situations might resonate with readers and some of the links may be helpful. If you find the A More Conscious Year series helpful (or don’t think it is helpful at all), I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading!
Sharon, Author, The Conscious Parenting Notebook