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Curse of the “Control Battle”: Defining Victory and Repurposing Defeat (pt. 2)

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by Jen DuBos MA LPC

As discussed in part 1, control is actually an illusion- but one we are willing to preserve at great cost if we engage in conflict without clearly identified motives.  People seek control to feel secure because, like so many destructive relational and cultural patterns, the pursuit of control is fueled by a fear of the unknown.

Further still, control-seeking can be both an offensive and a defensive move, since as we seek control over others, they are simultaneously seeking control over us. In order for me to have power, someone must be subject to me. This is precisely why those in official positions of power have such a grave responsibility to maintain self-control. It is when we begin to feel out of control of our own person that we first begin the frantic fight to establish control over the external world.

In the previous article I offered four questions as guides to keeping your conflict focused and productive instead of allowing it to spiral into a control battle. The questions are 1.) What is my point? 2.) What action should I take? 3.) Is this a battle I can win? 4.) What will happen if I lose this battle?

The third question, whether you can win, is a delicate objective. It’s where most well-meant disciplinary actions go astray because in the face of seeming defeat, parents will resort to battle tactics in order to compensate for one or all of the primal fears (failure, death, and abandonment). On the other side, children and teens will ramp up as parents crack down (or even before that) –  responding with outrage to what feels like tyranny.

So how is “victory” determined?

In fact, there is no stationary definition in this case – it is defined according to circumstance and specific, personal parenting goals.

If your child has a way of getting your goat and you make it a goal not to get flustered in an argument with her, and you remain calm when she is hysterical – even when she says you’re old and stupid – you have had a victory.

If it is your goal to stand firm in your disciplinary decision and you don’t give in, even if your son shouts or whines or threatens to leave home if you do not yield, you have had a victory.

If it is your goal to consider the extenuating circumstances that may be affecting your child’s uncharacteristic behavior and you remember to do this before you act, you’ve had a victory.

If your definition of winning is ever “I have to force them to comply”, it better be for only one reason – to prevent imminent death or dismemberment of your child or someone else.  In counseling, the only reason confidentiality can be broken is if the client is suicidal or homicidal and is not willing to sign a no-harm contract. Legally, we have the responsibility at that point to intervene and preserve life and the client is taken to the hospital. We call the police to take them if we have to. As a parent, you do have the responsibility of keeping your child alive and healthy if you possibly can.

But even if you can control someone physically, you have not controlled the mind, the heart or the will. A child or teen has to find internal motivation to make positive choices and changes in his or her life and the seeds for internal motivation are planted by parents through nurturing, modeling, and providing structure. Other than in the extreme cases afore mentioned, acts of force serve only to bruise and break the heart and soul of young people – hindering personal growth and only stoking the fires of rebellion as your child gets older. So if your child is running towards the street, catch them. If they say they have a plan to harm themselves, seek help immediately. But if you find yourself in a panic when you realize the outcome you were hoping for is not going to transpire, think before you launch in to fear-driven fight for domination.

So what happens if you deliver an unequivocal failure?

What if your child swears at you and you swear back? What if she makes a threat and you counter with an even bigger one? What if you say she cannot leave this house and she walks right out the door? Two components make it possible to still turn terrible control battles in relational victories.

First, you must have a structure in place for offenses before those offenses are made. House rules and the consequences for breaking them should be agreed on by the parents and as children grow, they may provide more input. These house rules and their consequences should be posted in the house so there is no confusion about what is expected and what will happen if one defies the expectations. This provides teenagers especially the opportunity to build long term perspective and a pension to think about the consequences of their choices. It also saves you from trying to make a sound judgment in the midst of a harsh climate.

The final opportunity to salvage your efforts of teaching a primary lesson, after the loss of a control battle, is to acknowledge your own faults, offer forgiveness and pursue reconciliation. If you behaved badly, you need to have the humility to apologize to your child and ask forgiveness. Also, if your child tries to apologize to you, you need to forgive them graciously. Admitting fault and reconciling without the holding of grudges is a critical part of teaching how to love others and love self unconditionally – which is the greatest lesson of all.