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Curse of the “Control Battle”: Using Power for the Right Reasons (pt. 1)

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by Jen DuBos MA LPC

Control is an illusion.

Some people discover this reality when a tragedy strikes and they realize that no matter how well prepared, no matter what prior knowledge they may have had, they could not affect the end result. The battle for control is an age-old struggle that has led to more suffering, death, war, and vain pursuit than any other philosophical concept in existence. It has re-organized continents, lead to the systematic elimination of entire people groups, and been the basis of slavery for millennia.

The greatest tragedy of all is that it has, indeed, been for nothing; an attempt to harness a concept that cannot be established in reality for any significant period of time. Whether it be between two superpowers or two people, a control battle can only end in a lose-lose scenario. Still, there is a hunger in us, a clawing desire to establish a sense of control over ourselves, our environment, our future, or over others. This internal battle is what makes tyrants and dictators out of presidents and parents alike. Since I have little sway over the political powers that be, I will instead offer some helpful insights on how parents can avoid the cursed control battle with their kids.

When you start down the road of an argument with your child, there are questions you should be asking yourself:

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?

These first two points will be addressed in the first half of this article.

First, your answer to question number one needs to relate directly to one of the basic responsibilities we have as parents. Those responsibilities are:

1) Teaching our children to love and respect themselves

2) Teaching our children to love and respect others

3) Teaching children the basic societal principles of honesty, reliability, modesty, and charity.

If the point of your battle is not related to these three points, it is not appropriate. If you are in a role of power over another, such as in the parent-child relationship, you have the responsibility to behave with maturity and selfless intent because you already have the upper hand of a power position.

So, even if your teenager has adopted a “tone” and is calling you “lame,” you should not say “You’re lame!” with hands on hips and cancel those plans she just made as you think “I’ll show her to be rude to me.” While this is an understandable reaction and not even necessarily the wrong consequence, the nature of the punishment is actually selfish and comes from a place of woundedness. In a peer-to-peer relationship there is more freedom to express personal feelings because we can’t ground our friends for being rude. We meet them on an even plane of mutual respect and the power differential doesn’t hamstring peers in their ability to defend themselves. But in the parent-child relationship, children do not have the maturity to respond appropriately, nor do they have the ability to express themselves freely for fear of further punishment. Therefore, modeling proper behavior in a conflictual setting is arguably the most effective way of teaching children how to be respectful.

After determining your point is in line with basic parenting goals, it’s vital to consider the variables influencing your child’s behavior before deciding how lenient or severe your action should be.  Is your child ill, engulfed in other social or academic turmoil, or low on sleep? Are you are at home, in the car, or in a public place? Are her or your friends around? Is this behavior typical or unusual? If this is a rare occurrence and you’re at home alone, a verbal reprimand may be sufficient for getting back on track. If she is showing off for her friends and this has become a pattern, more severe disciplinary action may be required to correct the course. If she is overwhelmed by college applications and Susie just kissed Johnny and she likes Johnny, you may remind her that you understand she is under a lot of stress, so you’re going to give her a chance to rephrase her statement.

Once you’ve decided your point is valid and made your attempt at correction or discipline, things can go one of two ways. Either your response evokes a compliant and apologetic counter- response, or it serves to escalate things into a full blown battle for control. If it’s the former, you need to be prepared ahead of time for how you will navigate victory or defeat. Read part two for these valuable insights. We will address the role of pursuing a victory in relational conflict and how to recover from a defeat.