Supporting Children, Youth, and Families in Greater Vancouver since 1990

parental control

Letting Go of Parental Control

Watching your toddler have a meltdown in the grocery store, your eight year old get reprimanded by his soccer coach for goofing around on the field, or your early teen completely ignore your request to put their belongings away is enough to trigger the most seasoned and dedicated parent. We feel embarrassed and frustrated. Where did they learn such values? Not from us surely! It’s time they learned how to behave properly, and we start to scan our minds for the best consequence to convince them to abandon their ridiculous plan and comply with what’s expected of them.  And into the power struggle we wade…

At the heart of the matter is the concept of parental control. We often act at these moments as though we can control our kids’ behaviour. Clearly they can’t seem to control their own behaviour or they wouldn’t be doing this! But in fact this is precisely what they are doing. They are choosing to behave in response to their perception of events in a manner that they believe will meet their immediate needs. The same way all of us behave essentially, but with a more limited appreciation of all of their options (more on this in a minute). So, if we take a stance that feels to them like we are trying to exert parental control over their behaviour, which we are, then they are likely to fight back and dig in to maintain a sense of control.

Look at things differently

Effective parenting over the long haul requires a different way at looking at your primary role as a parent. Too often we see our role as ensuring our children behave in a certain way. Yet, if this is the primary method of interaction during these times at best we will produce little robots waiting for their next instruction, or at worst rebellious anarchists ready to refute whatever the establishment decrees as an expectation. Sound familiar? Children who can’t seem to make a decision or move without our approval or direction? Or a young person who seems to do exactly the opposite of what we ask?

Hey, you’re not alone. Not by a long shot. But just because it’s not uncommon to experience this parent-child dynamic doesn’t mean it has to be expected or even tolerated. You can do something different. And that starts with a fundamental change to how we understand the primary role of a parent. Is our role to produce well-behaved children? (I know… so tempting to say yes to this!)  Or is our role to help create self-reliant and autonomous young people with the ability to regulate their emotions, and make good decisions (problem solve). I’m going with the latter. It’s my job to teach my kids how to make decisions, not simply do what I tell them to do. And you can’t teach decision-making and self-regulation through coercion; you’re simply teaching how to be compliant.

Influence vs control

So back to parental control. If I can’t control my kids’ behaviour, what can I do? I can influence them. Think this is the same? It’s not. If I control, then I expect MY outcome. If I influence, I expect them to incorporate my perspective with theirs and hope they adjust in a way that supports both. And remember I mentioned that I realize they have a limited understanding and appreciation of their options? Well, what we know now about brain development is that the best way to develop this skill is to USE it. That is, they have to be given age-appropriate experiences to try and think their way out of challenges, rather than simply being told what to do all of the time. Like any new skill they will initially be not great at it, make mistakes, and need help. But with experience they will begin to make better choices. On their own. And that is a great thing to witness.


Chris Burt has worked with children and families for over 25 years.  His training is derived from “best practice” programs in parenting education and family therapy.  Chris has consulted to the Ministry of Children and Family Development creating training programs for Family Support and Family Preservation.