The Control Factor

Whether it’s losing a primary caregiver either through death or abandonment, having to transfer cultures (maybe multiple times), or a more acute trauma, our kids live in a constant state of anxiety, fear, and insecurity. They feel like their lives are wildly spinning out of control and their belief that people (especially adults) cannot be trusted runs as deep as your belief that gravity is for real. This feeling causes them to claw and grasp for any sense of control they can muster.

Image courtesy of arztsamui /

Image courtesy of arztsamui /

Kids from hard places have a strange sixth sense that allows them to know exactly how to push their current caregiver’s buttons. Whatever behavior problems you are having, be assured they’ve subconsciously been carefully calculated to maximize the reaction from you. Depending on the age, stage, and personality of your child, this fight for control can present in countless ways. Here are some common ones:

  1. Bathrooming issues. With so much seeming out of their control, kids learn quickly that bodily function are something they can control. Whether it’s deliberate accidents or finger painting with feces, these issues are rarely signs of an actually physiological problem.
  2. Meanness. Kids from hard places are some of the meanest people I have ever met…especially during dysregulation. Phrases such as, “I like my real mom better,” “You always do things for other kids and not for me,” “I wish I had a different family that wasn’t as mean,” and “I’m lying whenever I tell you I like it here or love you,” are meant to tear our hearts out, and we often let them.
  3. Physical aggression. This can be physical aggression toward people or material possessions. Hurt children hurt people. It’s a coping mechanism to control a relationship. Children want to force you to reject them for their behavior before you can reject them for a reason they don’t understand. Destruction of property can either be to manipulate the caregiver (if it’s the caregiver’s property) or because the child has such low self-esteem from repeated relationship trauma that he does not believe he deserves to have any possessions. Too many things can also create a feeling of chaos in children so destroying them is a common reaction.
  4. Feeding issues. Similar to bathrooming issues, food is another field that kids learn they can control since caregivers can’t really make a child eat.
  5. Schooling issues. Just you like can’t make a child eat under normal conditions, you can’t force a kid to learn. If education is the hill you choose to die on, you can be assured your child will under perform just to push you buttons.

So we’ve identified common arenas where a child can try to regain a sense of control. What is the world is a parent to do?

  1. Underreact. Chances are that your child knows he needs to eat, how to use the bathroom appropriately, and that mean words and physical aggression are not acceptable. He wants an emotional reaction from you. Entering into an emotionally-charged confrontation gives an adrenaline rush he might be addicted to plus he gets the satisfaction of being in control of you. However you address the issue at hand, do it with calm and consistency.
  2. Share control whenever possible. I am by no means asking you to let your child control your house, but there are dozens of opportunities to help your child maintain a sense of security through shared decision making. Basically pick your battles wisely. It doesn’t really matter if your child wears the same mismatched clothes 5 days in a row or if she wants bagels and cream cheese for EVERY. BLESSED. MEAL. If your child has control in more appropriate areas, she’s less likely to fight for control in inappropriate ones.
  3. Slather on the love. Figure out what your child’s love language is and slather it on liberally. The more secure your child feels in his relationship with you, the less likely he’ll be to need the feeling of control.

Here are some other things to remember:

  1. These control seeking behaviors will not go away over night and may come and go in waves. Buckle down and stay the course. They are testing you…this is only a test.
  2. Through mirror neurons, we have a lot of power to diffuse situations or escalate them. As the adults, it is actually our responsibility.
  3. Most importantly, whatever you’re experiencing, YOU ARE NOT ALONE and YOU ARE NOT CRAZY or a bad parent. There are thousands of families parenting kids from hard places that GET IT.

Here is a great resource from the Empowered to Connect website-How Do I Handle Manipulation and Control?

If you need support or have a word of encouragement for another family, please leave a comment below.

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