When to Control — When to Let Go

“Do you have any idea just how much I’ve given up so that you can do this?”

In the 1960’s, a developmental and clinical psychologist born in an Irish community in New York City began publishing her findings evaluating how children performed as adults based on the ways in which they had been parented. Although many came from stable homes, research consistently showed very different outcomes.   As the decade progressed, others joined Dr. Diana Baumrind in an attempt to understand just what accounted for these differences.  Fifty years later, Baumrind and her colleague’s findings on parenting still remain relative.

Early on, she noticed that parenting seemed to differ on two major dimensions: responsiveness and demandingness. Responsiveness was seen as the degree parents were “in tune” to their particular child’s needs and how they used this knowledge to make informed decisions about what to do.  Given the uniqueness of each child, she found that parents who were especially responsive acted in ways that promoted more positive behaviors.  The second dimension, demandingness, was the extent to which parents insisted on increasingly mature behaviors from their child.  Parents who were demanding expected that their children would continue to develop, both through willful behaviors and normal maturation.  Being demanding parents meant there were clear expectations for their kids that adulthood was always on the horizon, and that they were expected to be ready some day.

Using these dimensions, research eventually uncovered four primary styles of parenting. Authoritarian parents are those who are very demanding, but low in responsiveness.  They set very clear limits for behavior, but expect that children largely just conform to what is expected with little or no discussion.  Permissive parents are very responsive, but have little demands for their children.  They set few limits or expectations for their behavior, and often adopt a companion or “friend” role.  Neglectful parents are both minimally responsive and demanding.  Frankly, they tend to let someone else take over the parenting role.  Finally, Authoritative parents are both demanding and responsive. They expect that their children will follow rules and strive to improve in important areas, but they are also willing to discuss and consider each child’s needs.  They do not subscribe to the old adage that “children should be seen, not heard”, but they certainly don’t believe that “children will find their way alone.”  When it comes to outcomes of social competence, contentment, and self-esteem, research has repeatedly found that offspring of authoritative parents do better than those raised in other ways.

Beneath much of this study, though, one more dimension emerged. Often neglected in discussions around parenting, I became particularly aware of the importance of this dimension years ago during my thesis work.  It is the degree of psychological autonomy versus psychological control given to youth. Psychological control is defined as the level to which a parent tries to control a youth’s thoughts, emotions, and attachment through various means, such as inducing shame, withholding expressions of love, and manipulating conversation.  This is contrasted with behavioral control (similar to the demanding dimension), in which parents use different ways of regulating and controlling child’s actions.  Although a moderate to high level of behavioral control is associated with a good prognosis (and authoritative parenting), the same is not true with psychological control. Research has repeatedly shown that when parents use emotional and strong-arm tactics to force a particular style of emotion processing and reasoning, youth tend to have lower self-esteem, poorer social abilities, and more mood issues.  This is one of the primary differences between authoritarian versus authoritative parenting.  Children raised in the former household are expected to adopt the thoughts, feelings, and values of their parents without conversation while those exposed to the latter style are often part of an ongoing conversation about the reasons these exist, even while clear limits remain.  Said another way, parents who demand certain behaviors generally have children who do well, but parents who demand that children think and feel a certain way end up struggling to know how to do this for themselves as adults.

A few points of clarification remain. One, it is clear that all parents, at some time, engage in psychological control, intended or not.  Sometimes even with good intent, our emotions take over in a way we wish wouldn’t happen.  Guilt and shame are also not bad things, when used sparingly and to teach certain needed responses, such as showing appreciation for something given.  Second, psychological control of the negative kind is not the same as teaching our kids values, impulse control, and methods of reasoning.  This is absolutely essential. Psychological control becomes negative when we attempt to regularly make the child feel bad largely due to our own struggles.  For example, when a father attempts to develop a child’s conscience by talking through the reasons why an action was a poor decision, this is not bad.  But when a father emotionally ties in the ways that the child has “ruined his day” by the decisions he has made, this is where the child struggles to separate himself from that of his father.

When this happens over time, and the child is not encouraged to think independently, they struggle to develop a positive sense of themselves and understand healthy ways to interact with others. Their mood becomes very dependent on the mood of others. This can lead to two negative outcomes:  enmeshment or estrangement.  Youth enmeshed with their parents often struggle as adults to manage the simplest decisions or the most common, daily emotions without having to constantly get feedback and reassurance from others, especially Mom or Dad.  Those estranged simply stay as far away as possible from their parents (and other authority figures) and use avoidance as the primary means of handling problems. In my own research, college students who rated their parents as high in psychological control not surprisingly tended to be those who struggled to have the confidence in handling the increased academic, social, and logistical demands of these years.

Consider the following items taken from a scale developed by Dr. Brian Barber highlighted in a 1996 article in the journal of Child Development. After looking across multiple studies and scales, these items best exemplified psychological control from the eyes of youth when describing a parent.

Changes the subject, whenever I have something to say

Finishes my sentences whenever I talk.

Often interrupts me.

Acts like she (he) knows what I’m thinking or   feeling

Would like to be able to tell me how to feel or think about things

Is always trying to change how I feel or  think about things all the time

Blames me for other family members’ problems.

Brings up my past mistakes when she (he)                                                                                           criticizes me

The point of all this is to not immobilize parents in taking action, but to consider one question. When my child or adolescent makes a bad decision, what is my first priority in redirecting them?  Is it to provide consequences and guidance with the hope that they will improve (gradually), or is it to unleash my inner frustration?  The research is not saying that we shouldn’t let children know that we are disappointed and upset at their decisions.  But it is saying that we shouldn’t become hysterical and blame all of our emotional turmoil on them.  Ultimately, we seek to teach our youth how to approach others in a caring, respectful, and transparent way, and learn how to speak truthfully and yet empathetically, so as to encourage others to do the same in return.  As I often tell youth in session when teaching the difference between I vs. You statements, I might be furious because of what you did, but you can’t make me furious. That remains my choice. Because if I believed you can, then I have little chance of calming me and talking with you, so that we can be better again.

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