The Cycle of Control: How Parenting Creates Rebellion in Children

When our children are born, they are wholly dependent on us for survival. We are socialized to believe that we know what is best for our children and it is our responsibility in turn to “socialize” them to become responsible, productive adults.

Their dependency on us allows us to easily believe that we should control their lives in order to ensure they turn out “right.” We are taught as parents that control is an important tool every parent should use at some point or another.

In my own experience, even though we nursed and fed babies on demand, as they grew up I decided that I needed to control what and when they ate.

Control can be over or covert.

We may determine what they eat by limiting what we bring in the house (covert control). We may determine what they eat by forcing them to eat everything on their plates before they are allowed to have desert or a treat (overt control).

As parents we are told we should make decisions for the children in our lives. We buy into the common “wisdom” that children are unable to decide when and what to eat.

Children cannot responsibly decide what to watch on television or what video games to play. They cannot decide what time to go to sleep.

We become convinced that because we have lived longer and have more experience than children, it is our responsibility to make decisions for them.

That was most likely what we experienced as children. And, our culture reinforces that children’s differences are deficiencies.

By making decisions for them, we deny children the right to self-determination. We treat them with disrespect and disregard when we decide they are incapable of making decisions and learning from that process.

In the history of our society, and to this day, we have denied groups of people the right to self-determination by infantilizing them or by labeling them as savages who need to be civilized. I often hear of the need to “tame” or “civilize” children in order to make them acceptable to adult society.

Our children do need our support and they are dependent. Does this dependence give us the right to control their lives?

If a partner in a relationship stays home and does not bring in income, does this give the “bread-winning” partner the right to determine how all money is spent in the household?

Does the financial dependence of one partner mean that the other partner can control her or his actions?

As a culture we create the belief that because children are young and don’t have the same experiences as adults they cannot make the right kinds of decisions for themselves.

We don’t trust children.

We then control their decisions.

They naturally push back against this control, and this rebellion reinforces our beliefs that they do not have the ability to manage their own lives.

Here is what the cycle of control can look like. We experience what we see as “negative” behavior on the part of the child. We believe we must use some form of control to eliminate that behavior. The child rebels against that control. We see the rebellion as more negative behavior that must be controlled.

We end up as parents and children in a harmful, self-perpetuating cycle.

We may not even be aware we are stuck in this cycle.

It may be we are just feeling frustrated by what seems to be unending conflict between us. And we may be unaware of the consequences of control on children.

In spite of the common wisdom that responsible parenting requires some form of control, there is a strong base of social science research on the impact and harm of control on children.

(Because the research is too long for this article, I’m not going to cover all the specific research. My first book includes this information in much greater detail.)

However, the research on the harm of control is clear and crosses a broad spectrum of behaviors and situations.

When children (or any human beings) are controlled, they experience

  • Feelings of dehumanization and a higher tendency toward violence
  • Higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems
  • Negative self-image
  • Diminished ability to self-regulate (for example food intake)
  • Less empathy and caring towards others
  • Rebellion

Control also contributes to being externally motivated.

When we are externally motivated, we look to others or things outside of ourselves for love, validation, and approval. Our behavior, decisions, and choices are made on the basis of what others may think about us.

The cycle of control has life long consequences.

Even as adults, we still live with the effects of the control adults exercised over us as children. If our parents controlled what we ate, we may manifest eating disorders as teenagers or adults.

If we were told we had to go to college, become a doctor or a lawyer, we may have spent our adult lives pursuing our parents’ dreams. Alternatively, we may have rebelled and pursued other vocations only in reaction to that control and domination.

Looking at our own lives to see the negative impact of control in children can be an important first step to break this cycle of control.

Breaking the cycle of control demands that we, as parents, challenge how we were indoctrinated as children. We can decide to reject the messages we received about children through our childhood experiences. We can learn to move beyond disempowering stereotypes and prejudices about children and childhood.

When we move out of this cycle of control we can redefine the parent/child relationship from a base of mutual trust and respect.

Does abdicating control mean abdicating our responsibility as parents?