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Letting go of the need for control

Catching them from falling from the first floor is easy; catching them from falling from the eighth floor is next to impossible. Let them learn from their first falls.

Photo Credit: INGIMAGE

My last column focused on taking care of ourselves.

It began with the Serenity Prayer, which bears repeating: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This column will focus on the incessant need parents feel to control their kids and many aspects of their lives.

On the one hand we have important responsibilities to set rules and limitations for our kids, yet once those rules and limitations are established, it is up to them to choose whether to keep them and reap the benefits or break them and suffer the consequences.

All too often we enter power struggles with our children, trying to make them choose the right way of doing things. However, this actually prevents them from internalizing the choices they are making.

On the other hand we can also tell them to “fake it till you make it,” which can work as well. When I am dealing with a young person who is struggling with the right choices – be it learning to deal with problems without the use of drugs and alcohol, treating parents at whom they are angry with respect or even treating themselves with care and respect – I tell them just to try the new healthy behavior for a month.

They can make up a list of all of the benefits they perceived during that month, as well as any issues that it caused for them. If the pros outweigh the cons, I encourage them to try it for another month. In the end it is still their choice to make the change, and when it causes positive things to happen, they are the ones who can take the credit for their choices.

In past articles I discussed enmeshment vs attachment, where we risk seeking our own validation in the choices and successes of our children, and taking their failures personally as a reflection on our parenting. In fact, neither is true.

Our kids have to make their own choices, follow their own path and feel the pain of their failures. Letting go of the need to control our kids takes courage. If we allow ourselves to believe that we must keep our kids from falling and failing, we will live our lives in fear. Our kids will learn more from their failures than from their successes.

However, as I have often explained, catching them from falling from the first floor is easy; catching them from falling from the eighth floor is next to impossible. Let them learn from their first falls.

At the same time we need to help them separate their actions from themselves as people, and assure them that one unwise act does not define them. We all make poor choices at some point and, as we know, the strength of a person is based not on whether he falls but on how he gets up again and learns from those mistakes.

In the end, we have a finite ability to control our kids in practice. We control the type of home they live in – whether it is one wrought with conflict and concern or one that is trusting and open. We control the tools we provide for our children and the messages we give them about themselves.

We control the alternatives we give them to expressing anger in a negative way, and most importantly whether we allow them to experience the results of their choices.

All we can do is share with our children our expectations of them – for example, that they choose positive ways to release their anger and disappointment, whether it is walking into the other room, listening to music, taking a walk or talking to someone. Then we make it clear that we are there for them to listen to them when they are ready.

We help to control our children’s decisions when they are clear about the consequences ahead of time. These can be mild, such as losing a privilege, or quite extreme, such as letting them know that if we catch them breaking the law by stealing or other criminal behaviors, we will involve the police.

Our household is a microcosm of the world they live in. If they hurt us or steal from us and we allow them to get away with it, we foster the opinion that we are not worthy of their respect or concern.

Once they get that negative message, we will see lack of regard and respect toward us repeated in their day-to-day behavior, whether it is speaking to us disrespectfully, disregarding our basic requests of them or being dishonest with us. Beyond that, we are giving them the message that they can break the law and cause harm to others with no ensuing consequences. This is a dangerous precedent to set.

We can control being the kind of role model we want our kids to learn from. As we all know, they take in what they see, not what they hear. If we overreact to things after telling our kids to be calm, that is what they will learn to do from us.

If we expect them to take responsibility for their mistakes, they must see us doing the same. This can be particularly tricky for those parents who feel that they must represent a sturdy figure who never makes mistakes.

Some cultures teach this philosophy, by which the justification of obvious mistakes made by the parents leaves their children confused and shakes their baseline understanding of reality.

We are responsible for showing our children that we, too, make mistakes, and this will help them forgive themselves when they do the same.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that just as we can’t control our kids, neither can our kids control us. We make the choice whether to enter into a power struggle with them.

We are the ones who must alert them to the consequences of their choices before they make them, so there are no surprises. We choose to model positive behaviors for them to learn from, and we decide whether to be consistent with the rules and consequences we choose for our kids.

They need to feel secure that the boundaries we set for them are real boundaries, that rules and consequences won’t be changed arbitrarily, leaving them insecure about what is expected of them and what will happen to them if they make certain choices.

Surrendering and letting go doesn’t mean giving up or not caring. It means doing everything in our power to relay and model the best and healthiest course of action for our kids in various situations, while allowing them to make the ultimate decision, and being there to help them to evaluate how a choice has affected them, and if it is one they would choose to repeat.

Parents interested in hearing more about communicating with teens and young adults, identifying red flags and other issues, are invited to attend my workshop on these subjects and more on December 16 at 6:30 p.m. at the AACI Center, 37 Pierre Koenig Street, Talpiot.

Cost: NIS 20/ AACI members, NIS 15


Tracey Shipley CAAP, counsels teens, young adults and parents in Jerusalem, and is the founder of the Sobar Music Center Project (Facebook: Sobar Jerusalem).
She can be reached at 054-810-8918, jerusalemteencounseling@gmail.com, and on her web site.