The internet would like for you to think that the parent/child relationship looks like this:
When in reality, it can look a lot like this (minus the costumes):
If parenting looks less like a relationship for you and more like a tug of war, you may be dealing with control issues in your household. Read this article to learn the difference between being in charge and being in control, what happens when control goes unchecked, and how parents can be in charge without squashing their child’s confidence.
In Charge vs. In Control
Being “in charge” may sound like the exact same thing as being “in control,” but they’re actually very different approaches to parenting (and to life).
- Being in control looks like a parent trying to assert their will and decision-making over their child’s.
- Being in charge looks like a parent providing a framework where their children can make decisions within it.
Shefali Tsabary, author of “The Parenting Map,” summarizes it well: Being in charge means managing your child’s environment, and being in control tries to control your child’s every action.
“Parenting is about setting expectations and standards for your child and then holding him to them,” says Dr. Liz Nissim-Matheis with Psychology Today. “That is, setting guidelines for daily routines, for how you speak with each other, how to express sadness, anger, or disappointment. It’s also about the emotional space you provide in your home and your tolerance for anger, sadness, fear, and disappointment. It’s also about raising those standards over time as your child grows.”
John Hittler with Forbes makes the distinction this way: Being in charge means setting direction and context, while being in control means insisting on having a part in most every decision.
Hittler makes an important exception to the preference of “in charge” over “in control.” He says both in parenting and in the workplace, leaders need to be in control when safety is at stake.
“For example, with your kids, you want them to work out differences at the playground,” he says. “Deciding who gets to go on the slide next or how long someone can be on the swings develops their risk tolerance and social maturation. When they want to play too close to the street, you take full control.”
The Dangers of Over-Parenting
Don’t take this the wrong way — we are not advocating that parents not guide or discipline their children! The issue at hand is when guiding children and helping them learn how to make their own, independent decisions turns into controlling them or taking on an authoritarian parenting style.
“This doesn’t mean that your children ‘rule your house,’ but rather that you are listening for your child’s needs and meeting them in the moment, as the moment comes and goes,” says Dr. Nissim-Matheis. “The ebb and flow of parenting makes it unpredictable, which can be scary and difficult to plan for. Parenting is not about control, but rather setting expectations and standards, listening, understanding how your child is different from you, and making sure that you are not bringing your past into the present.”
And there’s a wealth of knowledge that supports the fact that being an overly strict parent can cause major problems for kids as they grow.
- A Stanford study revealed that too much parental involvement when children are focused on an activity can undermine their behavioral development.
- A 2020 study out of the University of Virginia found that teens who grew up with overbearing parents struggled with relationships as adults.
- Research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that parents who frequently invaded their children’s privacy, didn’t let their children make their own decisions, or fostered an overly dependent relationship created psychological distress similar to the distress they would feel if a close friend or family member had died.
Establishing Who’s in Charge
So how do you establish a household where you are “in charge” without your household descending into complete anarchy?
Here are some tips.
- Create predictable routines. Remember, being in charge is about providing a framework. That includes daily routines and rituals. And, weirdly enough, part of why a child might fight for control is because they don’t do well without structure.
- Let your kids have input. While you’re making that daily schedule (among other things), invite your child to build it with you. If they help make the schedule, they’ll be a lot more willing to follow it. When kids feel like they’re in the driver’s seat of their lives, they are focused, optimistic, and not stressed out.
- Find reasons to praise them. If you’ve met a controlling person, you may have noticed that praise isn’t something that comes out of their mouths often. But finding time to praise a child automatically puts you on the same team instead of positioning things as parent versus child all of the time.
Parenting is hard. And being a parent who is in touch with both themselves and their children enough to know that control is not the best option is even more difficult. But remember that even though controlling your child may feel like the easiest thing to do in the moment, empowering them to make their own decisions provides the best outcomes. With the framework you create and the support you give, your children can grow up to be confident, satisfied teens and adults.