Many controllers feel they have their anger under control until they get married and start a family. The problems might begin to bubble in marriage, but when kids come along, they become a raging boil. You have enormous inner conflict that rears it’s ugly head especially when it comes to your kids. If this is you and you are reading this, that shows you have an incredible desire to be the parent God designed you to be. Here are some important things to be aware of:
Your Own Childhood- Or Lack Thereof
Your childhood was a prison that locked you up and didn’t let you grow up emotionally or relationally. Your way to break free of that prison by gaining the upper hand. As long as you are in control, you can ward off the feelings and situations from your childhood that haunted you. You feel compelled to create order and structure and maintain it in your relationships through control. Unearthing those buried feelings of fear, hurt, sadness, and desperation would feel to you feel as if you were “one down” from whoever you are talking to, thus putting you in a potentially dangerous situation (like from their childhood). Allowing that would be terrifying and would allow for you to be forced back into that place of humiliation, horror, and desperation at the mercy of another person. At least that is what it may feel like.
So, when you look at your own children, it is hard to show them the warmth necessary to parent well. You were robbed of your childhood, so unless you get some help, you may just repeat the pattern with yours. Since that isn’t what you want, you will have to develop your sense of vulnerability and sensitivity. Your children need to see these daily- not only when you are feeling regret.
How You Survived
By taking charge of yourself and others, you’ve managed to survive and feel as though you are thriving in different facets of your life. However, you will never experience the best in your relationships until you are able to be a completely trustworthy, safe person for those you are in relationship with- especially your spouse and kids (though this significantly affects business and other personal relationships as well).
So, what’s the problem? “Just don’t mention ‘Mommy/Daddy issues.’ I don’t have time for that,” you may say. That’s exactly the issue. You have a tremendous amount of hurt, powerlessness, pain, fear, grief, and shame that you have never processed or resolved. Stuffing it may have been a way to cope as a child that got you through to adulthood. Now its time to get serious about dealing with your stuff so you can be there for those who matter to you.
Why? Well for one, since you are out of touch with your own pain, you are completely oblivious to the many aspects of pain your spouse and children are experiencing because of you. You cannot imagine all they are feeling, be there for them, help them process, or give them any helpful advice or comfort, because you are completely out of touch.
Do you have a chance? The person in your shoes with the best chance to become safe and healthy relationally is the one who is convinced of the need to compassionately face your past.
Many controllers are hiding deep shame at being incompetent or inadequate under their anger and rage. Anger and rage may feel like acceptable emotions to you, while shame or inadequacy is not. However, if you don’t acknowledge and deal with your fears of not being good enough or not being enough, you will never be able to quell the rage and have real relationships with those that matter to you.
Keep in mind that the desire to control is on a continuum. Lesser childhood pain means a more mild anger and desire to control as an adult. Greater childhood pain means a more severe anger and desire to control as an adult. Even if you struggle with control, it is highly unlikely everything on this page would apply to you. Keep an open mind and look for the things that do and apply them, and that will have a significant positive effect on your family.
You and Your Infant
Controllers can feel as though a baby’s cry is about to drive them mad. If you have had an infant, you have likely experienced an irrational intolerance to your own child’s cries. The cries of your child are bringing up unconscious reminders of your own childhood pain. If you were abused, your child’s cries might lead you to overreact. You are reacting not to your child, but to the intense undealt with pain rising up inside you from your own past. You have to deal with that if you are going to be a safe, loving adult able to nurture healthy emotional and relational growth in your child.
Your child is helpless and afraid. At one time, so were you. Perhaps your entire childhood. No one helped you. The crying of your child can bring this overwhelming negative remembrance back to mind, and you have to completely shut down to keep from thinking about it. But if you detach, who will be responsive and attentive to your child? Who will help your child grow up with a different story? If you check out with an addiction to subdue your pain and stress, you are putting your spouse and child at risk.
Your child may also bring up reminders of other things that may also push you towards overreaction. For example, if you didn’t plan for this child, if this child reminds you of a mistake you made, or if this child’s crying reminds you of the need to provide on a low income.
It is very important to learn about normal develolpmental stages and needs of children.
Your feelings of shame that you might be incompetent or inadequate could be making you a pendulum parent. On one end, you can’t succeed so why try? At times you are completely uninvolved, allowing the other parent to manage everyhing with the kids and staying out of every entanglement (either to build relationship, discipline, or train your children). On the other end of the pendulum, you are overly rigid, following strict rules for “immediate obedience,” putting infants on strict timetables, and reacting angrily if your children do not immediately behave like adults.
The problem is that no one every helped you. You have no idea how much help children need to develop self-awareness, self-care, and self-control. No one every modeled it for you. Perhaps you’ve never developed those things yourself. So, you look at your child acting out and think things like,
- You’re just trying to get attention.
- You’re manipulating me.
- You think you’re so smart, don’t you?
- You just want to ruin our time together
- I’ll show you who’s boss
You and Your Preschooler
While many of the above still apply at this age group, you are now dealing with a very difficult stage. Preschoolers have an important job. Their job is to separate from you and establish their own identity. To do this, they start pushing limits and saying, “No,” “mine,” and “me do it.” This is an important part of their growth.
Yet, they are also completely dependent upon you for almost everything. They have legitimate needs- physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually your job is to meet. Their job is to need you and begin to separate from you. Your job is to warmly, lovingly, consistently enforce safe boundaries in a gentle but firm way.
Don’t be tempted to explode. You may feel no compassion for weakness, but your job is to give it anyway. Sometimes feelings follow actions.
When your children are in physical or emotional distress, your temptation may be to minimize or ignore their legitimate feelings and needs.
Don’t force your kids to digest the same heaping dose of neglect that you faced as a kid.
You may find yourself too strict toward your kids in being intolerant of mistakes and normal-for-their age behaviors. You may at the same time find yourself underprotective. After all, you weren’t protected as a kid, so you might not be aware of legitimate dangers. You’ll have to look at a situation and say, “Could my child get hurt in any way?” For example- sending your child across a store to go to the restroom by themselves in this day in age is just not safe. Letting kids play in a woods with a lake in the middle by themselves is dangerous. Allowing your kids to cook alone or play with fire is asking for trouble.
With kids of all ages, if you are watching television or playing video-games when your kids are around, make sure you aren’t exposing your children to content they are not able to process and that distorts God’s design for healthy sexuality and morality.
On top of normal developmental stages that must be considered, each child has his/her own personality, physiology, and style that must be taken into account when parenting. Don’t fall into the lie that, “If it’s time to eat, the child must be hungry. If its time to leave, the kids was done playing. If mommy needs rest and quiet, then little Susie must feel like staying in her room and whispering to her dollies to be quiet for Mommy.
You might get to say what the child gets to do, but not what the child wants to do. Babies and toddlers are not at a stage on development in which they can comply to an adult dictating what they need and when. Since they cannot developmentally comply, if you don’t understand developmental ages and stages, you may be extremely frustrated and angry when your kid doesn’t do, feel, or act as you expect. Your child is a unique individual, and this is a critical stage as they develop that independence. Stifling that could create a lot of problems for both you and your child.
What Behaviors are Such a Problem?
You may be wondering what you might be doing that could be a problem for your kids. Ask yourself if you tend to:
- frustrate easily and have poor coping skills
- exibit rage, outbursts of anger, and violent behavior toward my child
- be understructured or overly rigid
- be addiction-prone and preoccupied with things “more important” than my baby or child
- draw wrong conclusions about or attribute negative traits to my baby or children from people in the past and says things like, “The baby hates me,” or ,’She’s a little manipulator
- go into a trance-like response or frightening reaction when triggered by my baby or child’s crying or helplessness
- make poor choices and neglect my child when overwhelmed or preoccupied
You may tend to:
- have no concern for your child’s needs/lack awareness of age-appropriate expectations
- be intrusive; impose unreasonable demands on your child to conform
- yell, disrespect, and mock the child, or threaten violence
- be moody and unpredictable; nonchalant about things that matter
- tease or bully the child and then says, “I’m just kidding”
- expect your child to conform with your timetable with little sensitivity to the developmental capacities of the child.
As your kids become older elementary-aged and teens you may be tempted to show:
- a lack of empathy for your kids, forcing to take on the harsh world before they are ready
- disrespect through mocking or shaming (but demanding their respect)
- difficulty assessing danger
- an inability to see things as both good and bad, struggling with living in a world of extremes with no middle ground
- forceful imposition of your will on others
- emotional and relational detachment
- competition with your teen’s strong reactions
- no tolerance for difference in your children
- no regard for your kid as being their own person
- excessive boundaries or lack of them
- sexualized or inappropriate behavior
Your teen’s job is to develop independence and grown into a responsible adult with internalized boundaries, boundaries, and character. If you don’t work with God in this process, may be tempted to give your teens no independence. As they exhibit loving, respectful, responsible behaviors, they earn more independence. When they don’t, instead of reacting, you can respond with gentle but firm boundaries. Tons of great parenting books and classes exist to help you through this stage. If you want something quick, check out Henry Cloud’s free class on Boundaries for Parents here or on Boundaries.me.
The Real Problem
You may still be feeling you are in the right in how you parent. You may have recognized some qualities above, but not see what the big deal is. Here it is: the difference between the controller parent and the other love styles as parents is that all the love styles- except controllers- can protect their children. As Milan and Kay explain,
“The controller is the source of danger who brings ‘fright without solution.'”
They give an example of two parents who brought their teenage son in for counseling. When the counselor asked the boy a question, but the dad answered for him ferociously with all his frustrations with his son. His son sank down into his chair and his mom glanced frantically at him with fear and compassion. It became quickly apparent that the issue was not the son, but his angry controller dad and the dysfunction he brought to his marriage that spilled out onto the son. After four years of couples therapy for Mom and Dad, that boy had two parents in a much healthier relationship, and he was fine, too.
In parenting, you are likely looking for:
- Respect for disrespect
- Obedience to irrational demands
- Everyone to fall in line to an out-of-line approach
But this will stunt your child’s growth, not to mention make your life harder.
Unable to Mature Emotionally
This causes trauma in the children, who must repress their own feelings to manage Mom or Dad’s feelings. To prevent more chaos, threats, and scary behavior by the controller parent, the children learn not to feel the normal feelings that come in abusive situations (anger, grief, frustration, desperation, rage, depression). Thus, the trauma freezes children developmentally, allowing them to grow physically while unable to mature emotionally and relationally.
A Child’s Response to a Controller
Milan and Kay explain that a controller’s child is constantly asking,
“Who is Dad/Mom right now?”
- The scary one?
- The tired one?
- The drunk one?
- The sad one?
- The apologetic one?
Based on that, the child can then determine:
“Who am I right now?”
- The bad one?
- The invisible one?
- The hated one?
- The good one?
- The parent to my parent?
As They Grow Up Physically
Instead of growing up in maturity emotionally and relationally, the child of a controller is subconsciously deciding,
Will I control or be controlled in my adult life?
Since you have no desire to repeat the cycle, what can you do?
Focus on Your Growth
When you were an innocent child, you were abused, neglected, trampled on, left in terrible fear that you had to deal with alone. Your heart and needs were ignored. Seek to:
- recognize just what you lost through the painful events of your childhood. Develop compassion for yourself so you have compassion for your kids.
- learn how to give and receive comfort and warmth
- learn how to be vulnerable
- develop healthy friendships with safe people
- believe that you and each of your family members has a right to be the unique person God designed each one of you to be.
- begin to appreciate the degrees of good and bad in every situation and in every person, including yourself.
- develop self control to respond with honor and respect to your family.
- be involved in small groups at a grace-centered, Bible-teaching church
- join a recovery group. These can help with a need to control.
Every single change you make helps your children become more secure as you become more approachable.
Read more in I’m a Controller: What Now?
How Can I Help My Child
You may have caused stress in your child, but you can provide relief instead. Milan and Kay explain that to do this, you can follow their comfort circle:
- Seek awareness
- Engage (speak the truth in love)
- Resolution (brings comfort and relief)
Behind your child’s behavior are strong feelings and fears driving them. They need help to learn how to get control of these feelings and their behaviors. Help your kids become aware of these feelings. Regularly talk through Milan and Kay’s free list of Soul Words together, finding the right feelings to express what is going on inside. Better yet, get a better feel of the comfort circle through their books.
Create a safe environment to explore and discuss feelings. Begin to recognize when your kids are grumpy, scared, standoffish, or extra clingy. Something is going on inside.
Sincerely seek to understand your child- for who they are. Help them process what is going on inside. You can provide comfort just by asking in a warm, loving way. Communicate things like:
- How are you feeling about __________. I want to know, because I care about you.
- You matter to me.
- You seem upset. I feel that way, too when something is bothering me. I wonder what is on your mind?
- Tell me more. I want to understand.
- Are there other times you have felt this same way?
Your children might feel upset or hurt because of behavior on your part. They may be scared to open up to you. Prove that it is safe for them to do so. Listen calmly- not defensively. Never criticize them or say what they did wrong. Listen by asking more questions to understand. Try to put yourself in their shoes.
The key here is to ask your child “What do you need right now?” Find out if there is any way you can comfort or help them.
Perhaps you did or said something that hurt them.
If you did, give them a sincere apology, explaining what you did, that it was wrong, and that you will work hard to not do it again.
Recognize your Triggers
Try to notice what it is in each child that triggers a strong emotional response in you. Is it some kind of words, attitude, or behavior? Whatever it is, think about what feelings you experience when they do that. How do you tend to respond?
Is there someone from your past that spoke words that way or exemplified that attitude or behavior? Is there someone from you past you would like to say those words to?
Usually the things your kids do that spark a strong response in you are not about your kids at all. They are about damage from the past that you need to grieve and deal with. Otherwise it will rear its ugly head every time your kids exemplify it, magnifying your response to normal kid behaviors (that may or may not need disciplined, but definitely need to be dealt with in a calm, loving way). As your own wounds heal, you will create less wounds in your kids. When you do wound them by overreacting or responding harshly, apologize. Make your apologies like an Olympic sport. Dare to do them honestly and well.
Look out for Addictions
You may be leaning on addictions to “deal with” your pain. You may feel completely out of control to them and unable to get free. Milan and Kay put it this way:
“Addictions are the most common method of finding relief. The constant torment they once endured on the outside has traveled inside to become their closest “friend”: a familiar place of pain with no apparent escape.”
You may tend to tend to escape through playing video games, doing drugs, drinking alcohol, doing pornography, gambling, or overspending. You may believe these help you feel better at least for a little bit, especially when you’re really stressed out. But they leave you isolated and full of regret and shame that keep you in the shadows and out of the strong, vibrant relationships you could be having with those most important to you.
Get the help you need to get free of your addictions. Do whatever it takes. You are pouring out all the best parts of you in relationship to this addiction- not to your spouse or children. Don’t lose their hearts or their presence in your life. Check out resources like Celebrate Recovery and find a counselor through Focus on the Family’s Free Counseling Session and help finding a counselor.
A Word To Parents of Adults
As Henry Cloud explains it, parenting adult children (excluding special situations, such as disability), is an oxymoron. Once your children are adults, you are still Mom or Dad, but your job of parenting is over. If you struggle with knowing how to come alongside your grown children without controlling, parenting, or taking a role you were never meant to take at this point, check out His series on Parenting in Boundaries.me. You can watch it for free here.
You may be reading this because someone dear to you is a controller. A future blog will deal with how you can come alongside (not fix) your loved one. Be sure to follow so you don’t miss these.
Want To Know More?
Milan and Kay Yerkovich wrote a great book called How We Love: Discover Your Love Style, Enhance Your Marriage. The workbook quoted and drawn from in this post is very helpful and practical for taking steps toward growth. They have a whole series for singles, couples, counselors, etc at How We Love. (note, I’m not an affiliate or anything. I just have benefited from these resources and want to share).
I’ll be addressing the controller love style further and the victim love style in future posts.
More Posts In the Series:
If you’d like to know more about love styles, check out the Entire Love Style Series.
The key teachings of this post are consolidated from Milan and Kay Yerkovich’s excellent resources. I highly encourage you to find out more from them directly:
- Milan & Kay Yerkovich. How We Love: Discover Your Love Style Enhance Your Marriage. Christian Audio.
- Milan & Kay Yerkovich. How We Love Workbook: Making Deeper Connections in Marriage. Waterbrook: 2017.
- Milan & Kay Yerkovich. How We Love Our Kids: The Five Love Styles of Parenting. How to End the Struggles and Tension. The Crown Publishing Group: 2011.
Copyright © 2020 Angela Edmonds. All rights reserved.