Who is in Control?

Who is in Control?


With the changes in parenting that have occurred during the past thirty-five years (Since the early 1970’s) there has been an increase in the number of children who seem to be out of control.  This lack of control is seen in the classroom, in public places such as stores churches and restaurants, and when the children are with other adults. This has resulted in many parents turning to psychologists for behavior control and to doctors for medications to control the behavior, best epitomized in the excessive diagnosis of medication and treatment of ADD, ADHD, and now Bipolar Disorders.

Parents who no longer believe in physical punishment and often don’t set clear boundaries for their children are at a loss for alternative means to “control” their child’s behavior.  In addition, in households with both parents working it is difficult for the working parents to come home and be disciplinarians to their children in a consistent manner.  Grandparents, childcare schools and sitters are often turned to for implementing attempts to “control” the child’s behavior.  The lack of consistency between these parenting systems further complicates the correction of the misbehavior.

Certainly, all children do not fall under the rubric of “out of control” children.  Fortunately, many children have personalities that can readily adapt to the different limits that are set in the home, school and aftercare.  They can also easily distinguish between adults who “expect” behavior within certain limits from those who don’t.  While these children may be constitutionally different, they too can benefit from the following proposed approach.

This approach requires a fundamental shift in belief if it is to be successful.  While we all acknowledge that self-control is each one of our personal responsibilities, we do not operate out of that framework in child rearing.  Indeed, we function as if each one of us who comes in contact with the child is responsible for controlling him or her.  The greater the parental role the greater the responsibility we have in controlling this behavior. Parental role is defined as whoever is in charge with the child – whether it be parent, teacher and child care worker.

There is also a new breed of parent who feels that letting the child act naturally - requires no external or internal control.  For them the child’s inappropriate behavior does not become a problem until it has reached the level of interference; interference with other children learning, with social expectations of others, with other adults leading their lives or carrying out their duties.  It is often at that point that the psychologist becomes involved.

After having seen a proliferation of these families and children during the past 10-15 years I have used this very simplified approach to child behavior which begins with an equally simple premise – that we all have to learn to control ourselves at some point in our life.  This notion of self-control is taught so the child learns very early to internalize the idea instead of having to fight with authoritarian figures over issues of control or no control.  For most parents this requires a fundamental paradigm shift away from their responsibility to control the child to the child’s need to control him/her self.  This shift also requires a major mind set change and as simple as it sounds, is extremely difficult to do.

When done successfully, it removes the parent or teacher from the position of behavior control to the position of identifying for the child when he or she is out of control (as appropriately defined by the parent or teacher).  The supervising figure then calls the child on it by saying “MAX YOU ARE OUT OF CONTROL WITH YOURSELF AND YOU HAVE TO GET BACK IN CONTROL OF YOURSELF”.  The child then is told to take a time out.  The time out is what practically works for the situation.  It can be his room; a seat on a chair, going to the car with the caretaker or other designated place that brings about success.  “GO TO YOUR ROOM UNTIL YOU ARE BACK IN CONTROL OF YOURSELF.  THEN YOU CAN COME OUT.”

The length of time for the time out becomes dependent upon the child’s recognition that he is back in control of himself.  If the child care person does not think that he has attained that self control, the out of control behavior is described to the child and he is told that he cannot remove himself until he has gotten control of that behavior.  The process of success in this method is slow.  It is the consistent and repetitive identifications of out of control behavior that eventually helps the child to learn what is socially determined as “out of control” behavior.  The turning point comes when the child says to himself or others “I’m out of control with myself” and self limits.  If the parent has any similar out of control behaviors (i.e., yelling, swearing, getting loudly
angry etc) do not be surprised if the child says “mom (or dad) you are out of control with yourself”.  It is extremely important for the parent to own this behavior and modelfor the child: “You are right – I have to take a few minutes to get back in control”.  This modeling effect helps all involved to maintain better self-control.

As usual there are not miracles in this or any other approach.  For this to work all figures involved in the care of the child have to agree to the approach and have to be capable of moving from the “I’ll control him” position to the belief that his learning to get in control of himself is an appropriate goal.  This system is simply giving the child a way to do this.  In so doing this the child defines family, school and societies expectations of appropriate behavior.

The caretaker’s role becomes:
1. To identify the out of control behavior
2. To be consistent
3. To be persistent with the child until he grasps the notion of self-control.

The child quickly learns
1. When he is out of control
2. What he has to do to regain control
3. That he has accomplished mastery of himself.

This is a major growth experience and confidence builder.  Children out of control with themselves do not feel good about it and grow into adolescence with much greater problems than those who have self-mastery.

Once you are ready to begin this approach it is important to define the change to the child ahead of time just like it is whenever there is going to be any new rules.  For example, “WE ALL HAVE TO LEARN TO CONTROL OURSELVES – MOM AND DAD AS WELL.  WE ARE GOING TO HELP YOU LEARN HOW TO DO THIS BECAUSE ITS YOUR JOB.  YOUR OTHER CAREGIVERS ARE GOING TO HELP YOU AS WELL.”

If the child is old enough to understand language (for 2-3 on) then an example is appropriate.  “When you yell and scream, hit your brother, start to lose it in the store, we will tell you that you are out of control with your self and you have to regain your control.  You may help us by choosing one of these ways to get back in control; sit in your room, sit on the stair, sit in a chair or go to the car with me until you feel like you are back in control.  Which of these choices do you want to do?”

This empowers the child to choose whatever he thinks would work for him.  If, after several trials it doesn’t work, then you define it and say “this didn’t work, you have to choose some time out that will work.”  We know that you will feel better about yourself and I will feel better also when you have better control of your self.

In the weeks that follow it is very important for the caregiver to praise the child spontaneously.  “You know I’ve noticed how much better control you are in and how much happier you are because of it”.  Special notice with examples will be very reinforcing to the child and further help him or her with feelings of positive self-worth.

If you and your caregivers all subscribe to this approach (change your belief from I have to control him to he has to control himself), do it consistently, then I guarantee behavior change usually within a couple of months.  Do not think that 1. This is easy, 2. That you can slack off, 3. That you can stop after a couple of months.  This is a life long approach that builds positive self-esteem and that we all have to continue to improve upon.  It is fundamental in building a strong family and a strong society.

Your recognition and definition of “out of control” behaviors have to be fair, equal to all your children and agreed upon by all the caregivers. At the same time there can be individual differences between caregivers as to what behaviors the child has to get control over.  You have to remain flexible in application but not in principle.  As the child improves there has to be random comments to the child about how proud you are of him and how good it makes him feel and you feel when he is in control of himself.  Also it is important to comment about how good it makes you feel about yourself when you retain greater self-control.

As an aside it is important to recognize that the only two causes of primary anger are perceived unfairness and control issues.  Control issues mean that it is predictable that if you try to control someone (child, especially adolescent, and or your spouse) and they don’t want to be controlled – they will get angry at you for trying to control them and you will be angry at them for them not being easily controlled.  With this psychological switch to self-control – the only person that the child can be angry at is himself for being out of control.  If that happens then dealing with that will be dealt with in a different letter to parents.