The Illusion of Control

A reader made an interesting comment and raised a question in response to an earlier article, “No Fault Mothering” (see comment). She writes about her five year old who is aggressive toward her nine year old and other family members when he doesn’t get the attention he wants. She has told him to use his words, not his hands, and given him time-outs until he apologizes. His response is to pee in his room. She wants to figure out what is going on inside his head and says, “The advantage of making this ‘my fault’, is that it gives me the illusion of control. If it’s my fault, then I can fix it, right?”

This is a most insightful comment. When mothers find something difficult or problematic going on with their children, they tend to see only two alternatives: either something is wrong with the child or with themselves. The idea that something might be wrong with a child is a little scary. Mothers often find it preferable to see it as their fault,feeling that offers the greater possibility of “fixing it”.

Our reader calls this “the illusion of control” and she is right about that, because it is an illusion – one that is quickly shattered. What happens is that a child’s provocative or aggressive behavior that we can’t seem to do anything about makes us feel out of control. We feel as though we should be able to control such behavior, and when we can’t, our feelings of helplessness, frustration and anger often lead to punitive responses that don’t help at all. So the idea that one is in control is indeed, an illusion.

A wise teacher once told me, “You’re in control if you feel in control”. Of course, the question is, how do you get to feel in control? You can start by accepting the fact that you can’t control a child’s behavior in the sense of making him stop doing something. The behavior of young children can be very primitive and cause parents to become primitive in their own responses. Pretty soon both parent and child are out of control, and this kind of confrontation simply leads to more upset and guilt for Mom.

Katherine, our comment writer, is on the right track when she says she needs to figure out what is going on inside her younger child’s head. The way to begin is by asking some questions. What is the attention he wants that he feels he is not getting? Why is he so angry at everyone? Does he feel shut out, with everyone older and bigger than he is? Is he finding it hard to get the space he needs to be heard? Looking at the situations in which his unacceptable behavior occurs can help you shed some light on it.

The next thing might be to accept the fact that the methods you are using are not doing any good, in fact they seem to be making him angrier (peeing in his room is a pretty angry response). So why continue with them? One of the things that happens in unresolved conflicts is that a pattern of behavior gets set in place. Child does his thing, Mom does her thing; everyone follows the same script, and nothing changes. A young child is not capable of being the one to change, so Mom has to go first. You have to change your response in order to break into a behavioral pattern that has been established.

How to do that? One way might be, instead of telling him to use his words, tell him that you see he is having trouble learning to use his words and you will help him. The fact is that impulse control is a developmental step which is hard for children to master – harder for some children than for others. It’s even hard for some adults. Anger is a big emotion, and the impulse is to strike out. It takes a lot of work to transform that into talk out. Children do need help while they are learning to do that.

What about the time-outs until he apologizes? Why is it so important to apologize? Mothers, at times, get very invested in apologies, as if getting a child to apologize for something he has done fixes it. Or at least helps a mother feel that she has done something in response to his behavior. In fact, an apology in this kind of situation accomplishes nothing except to make the child apologizing feel doubly wronged. Whatever the feeling was that made him strike out in the first place has not been addressed, and now he is, in effect, being punished for his feelings. If you want to “figure out what is going on inside a child’s head”, you have to try to see things from his point of view, not your own. If you want to help him learn that he cannot hurt someone else, first you have to address what is causing him to feel hurt.

I have not even touched the question of “time-out” here, because that is a whole topic in itself, which I will write about sooner or later. Right now the message is, give up the illusion of control and trade it in for trying to understand your child’s behavior.