Excessive Needs for Control

Although actual parental control of the child is an illusion, some strong-willed parents insist on believing that control of their child actually exists. To prove this illusion true, they will often go to excessive lengths to prevent what they don’t want or to get what they do want. A common example is the fear-prone parent who wants to protect the child from possible harm by reducing exposure to potential risk. Driven by fear, this parent is in danger of becoming overprotective and inclined to excessive control. The best kind of control is being in control of motivating your child to do what is best for him in the long run. This is the ultimate of being in charge.

The Fear-Prone Parent

Growth requires trying oneself out in ways one has not tried before, and trial and error learning always offers potential harm. The toddler can’t learn to walk without risking falling down, the eight-year-old can’t learn to cook without risking getting burned, the thirteen-year-old can’t have a peer group without risking getting in trouble, and the sixteen-year-old can’t drive a car without risking having accidents. Growth is an inherently risky process. The book Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (listed in the resources at the end of this book) offers wonderful suggestions for fearful parents.

Parents preoccupied with fear of potential harm to their child can become extremely cautious and overprotective. In consequence, they may raise a child who is anxious or raise a willful child who is rebelliously risk-attracted, too defiantly adventurous for his own good. Instead, parents should simply teach the child how to assess and safely manage risks that come with normal growth.

Parents who cannot bear the thought of exposing their growing child to possible harm can let fear cause them to hold on to the child too tightly, micromanaging the child’s behavior, holding growth back instead of letting go so healthy expression, activity, association, and exploration can occur. Of course, letting go is the hardest part of parenting because putting the child at the mercy of his immature decision making, much less at the mercy of an unpredictable and dangerous world, is scary for most parents. What excites the child (“I can’t wait to swim over at the neighbor’s pool!”) can terrify the fearful parent. Suppose no adult is supervising?

Constructive Worry

To help ease the fear of letting go, the overprotective parent needs to use fear not as a warden who says no to every new freedom because it entails risk, but as an advisor who helps make it safer to let go. Overprotective parents need to avail themselves of constructive worry. Constructive worry asks “what if?” questions to anticipate possible risks and come up with strategies for preventing some and for coping with others should they occur. Asks the parent, “What if the supervising adult was called away from the pool for an emergency, what would you do?” Answers the child, after thinking ahead, “I’d get out of the pool and wait until the parent or another adult came back.” Constructive worry can help the child be prepared.

Rather than protect against risks associated with their child’s normal growth by forbidding any uncertain exposure, parents can use worry to assess risks, to help the child foresee them, and to teach the child to use worry to think ahead and make plans for dealing with problems that might occur.

Fear-prone parents are high-control parents who have excessive information needs: “I need to know everything that is going on in my child’s life to protect him from harm and to feel secure myself.” If they get into toxic worry, the more extreme and urgent their need to know becomes, the more their worry discourages the communication they are desperate to have from their child, the more anxious from ignorance they become. For his own protection, the child reduces contact and limits conversation to keep this poisonous anxiety away. If you tend to be fearful, work on increasing your trust in life in general instead of covering every possible angle with your child. You will be a happier person.

Strong-willed parents can be their own worst enemies or their own best friends. To be the latter, take your strength of will and invest it in patience, persistence, and perspective, three parenting characteristics that shall serve you very well.

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