What Do I Do? (When My Kids Are Out of Control)
What do I do when my kids are out of control?
When I wrote this question, I immediately thought of many moments when I was totally confused as to how to respond to my children. These moments are especially difficult when they occur in public.
I recall one specific time when we had just returned home from a trip to Disney World, and my kids were 4 and 18 months. They had definitely been eating more sugar than normal and they were overly tired from all the travel.
We went into Target to get some groceries and my 4yr old daughter asked if she could have a cookie. My wife and I both gently responded by telling her that they had more than enough sugar over the past week, and we weren’t going to have anymore today.
At this moment my daughter completely lost all control of her body and began screaming and crying right in the middle of the store. This was the first time we had seen her do something like this in public and it kind of confused us for a moment.
Immediately, the fear of judgement and ridicule began to creep into my awareness. At this time I was an elementary school counselor and I couldn’t help but the fear that some parent from my school would see me at the store and see me as an incompetent parent. I felt clueless, helpless, and alone.
In these moments, a lot of emotions flood me but the most consistent and pervasive feeling is fear: the fear of failing, the fear of being incompetent, and the fear of losing control.
When I give into the fear, it normally results in me becoming angry, controlling, and intimidating. I will start raising my voice and can becoming demanding and rigid. My kids will tell you I might even give a lecture or two.
What these kind of events teach my kids is when you are out of control then I will have to control you. It sends the message that they can’t control themselves because they will need me to control them.
I started to realize that this not a solution to the problem. I am raising them to need extrinsic control either through reward or punishment rather than intrinsic control. It is only through teaching intrinsic control that a person can then develop the skill of self-control.
Extrinsic vs intrinsic control
Anytime I am using a fear based approach to discipline I am modeling and teaching my kids that it is my job to control them. My children will let me do this if I continue to insist that this is how things are in my home and in the world.
In those moments when my child is getting out of control, fear will tell me that I need to control him. Fear will insist that the ends justify the means because I can’t allow my child to do that or get away with that.
Fear whispers to me that I must stop how my child is behaving or feeling at this moment because if I don’t this problem will persist all through their life.
The message my child gets is that when they are overwhelmed and out of control they are incapable of managing themselves or their emotions. They can only regain control once I control them.
I have seen this many times at playgrounds or at the store when a child is not responding to the parent’s direction until the parent yells or gets a very stern and angry tone. This is extrinsic control.
When I am talking to kids in session with me they will tell me that they know their parent isn’t serious about their request until they yell or threaten them. This is a dance set up by the parent giving into fear and then feeling like they need to control their child.
Even though the kids tell me they don’t like this dynamic with their parents, they feel powerless to change it because they honestly don’t believe they can control themselves. This can only be solved once I believe that it isn’t my job to control my child.
I now see that my job is to teach my child how to have intrinsic control. I want to support them in developing the skill of self-control.
Intrinsic control is going to be something that will guide them in their choices wherever they are in life.
Intrinsic control doesn’t require me or any authority figure to be present to make sure they make healthy, responsible, and moral decisions.
The most challenging part of all this is in order to give this to my child I actually need to practice and model this in my own life. I need to honestly asses how much my own choices are guided by extrinsic or intrinsic locus of control. I really needed to strengthen the skill of self-control in my own life.
How do I give my child the gift of self-control?
The first step is I need to be honest with myself how much self-control I have. I had to ask myself some hard questions.
Am I able to have feelings such as anger, fear, anxiety, etc and not let them dictate the steps I take?
How quickly do I get triggered by external events and then what do I do with those feelings?
If I don’t know what to do with those feelings then how can I show my children?
I need to know how to manage my feelings instead of just exploding or stuffing them. The answers to these types of questions help me understand myself and my motivations better.
The next step I starting putting into practice was switching my approach with my children. I began embracing the simple concept that self control isn’t something my children are born with; it is something I will need to teach and model.
It is a skill that needs to be developed much like brushing their teeth, potty training, etc. These skills must be practiced and honed over time. I need to be patient and give them a lot of opportunities to succeed and fail. I
really enjoy how Dr. Becky Bailey approaches this topic. She says that almost all discipline models are trying to answer the question, “How do I get my child to do ...?”
This is what most parents want an answer to when it comes to getting the kids to do something they want them to do. The problem with this question is that it implies I am supposed to get my child to do things.
This is why so many discipline models out there only perpetuate an extrinsic locus of control. Dr. Bailey wants the parent to begin asking themselves a different question that will help cultivate self-control in the parent and in the child.
The question that changes everything is, “How do I help my child be more likely to choose...?”
This question implies cooperation, participation, and invitation. It is actually a question I would typically ask myself if I was talking to my wife or a friend. I don’t think it is my job to control those relationships. It respects their free will but also calls them into a collaborative journey.
In my experience this question doesn’t lead me to fear but instead towards connection and creativity. It has helped me move away from controlling my kids and towards controlling myself and then inviting them into the practice of self-control. I hope you will experience the same thing as you try and change the question you are asking.