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Parenting: The Control Myth & What To Do About It

Let’s talk control (or lack thereof) of our kids, anxiety, shame, responsibility, and parenting.


There is an important and essential distinction between parental responsibility and parental control and Harriet Lerner explains this beautifully in her book “Fear and Other Uninvited Guests: Tackling the Anxiety, Fear and Shame That Keep Us from Optimal Living and Loving”.


“We are responsible for our own behaviour, including the responsibility to be the best parents we can be.  We should be there for our child, seek help when we need it, and never give up on a son or daughter.

But we do need to give up the magical fantasy that if we just do or say the right thing, we can determine how our child will think, feel, and behave.  Nobody has that much control over a human being.”

Harriet Lerner, 2004: 127


There’s an old fashioned, unhelpful myth in our society that parents, especially mothers, cause children’s behaviour when actually there are many complex factors that contribute to a child’s behaviour.  Everything from being tired, hungry, and overstimulated to troubles with peers and friends, experiencing bullying, increased academic expectations and reduction of play based learning, not enough free play and time in nature, adverse experiences, losses and traumatic experiences, and just living in a stressful world. 

The difference between the world we grew up in and the world we are parenting in highlights some of the contributing factors to our kids having a hard time: the pervasiveness of technology and social media, increased school pressures, and a world that’s feeling the effects of a global pandemic, war, and increased cost of living.

One big problem with the myth of control is that it invites a sense of being “not good enough” and feelings of anxiety and even shame when our kids have big emotions, push limits, and have challenging behaviours … especially when this happens in public places.  When that happens the anxiety, self-doubt and shame can rob us of our best and kindest thinking and then we can become reactive and respond in anger and frustration, rather than understanding that big emotions, pushing limits and challenging behaviour are all a normal part of development; and that our kids needs us in these moments to love them and respond in ways that show our love as we set limits and shape behaviour, and help our kids grow into great humans.  It’s our response to our kids we are responsible for, not the magical ability to control them.


Instead of subscribing to the myth of control, the most helpful things that we can do as parents are:

Practice Self Compassion. 

Talk to yourself as you would a valued friend with kindness, understanding and compassion.  There is no such thing as a perfect parent, and even if there was it’s not what our kids need.

Connect to Your Parenting Values and Principles. 

If you aren’t sure what your parenting values are, try this.  Imagine your kids are all grown up and that they are being interviewed on a TV show, and the interviewer asks them what they most appreciated about their parents.  What would your best hopes be about what they would say looking back as an adult on their growing up experiences with you.  And if you are in a relationship, be sure to discuss parenting values as a parent team to decide what matters for your family.

Respond in Line with Your Values and Principles. 

If you need a minute or two to settle yourself before responding, so that you can act in line with your values and principles that’s absolutely okay.  Definitely take a parent pause moment and congratulate yourself on your insight that a break is helpful.  What’s a parent pause moment?  It’s that moment you give yourself between the thing that happened and the thing you do in response to what happened.  As a parent it’s great to work out what works for you so you can create space to think about what might be going on for your child and how you would like to respond to your child. E.g., take a few minutes outside, a couple of deep breaths, a trip to the bathroom to splash water on your face, a cuppa, or self talk – telling yourself you’ve got this and reminding yourself of your values.

It’s completely natural to want to fix or change our kids when they are struggling, and absolutely we have to respond to our kids’ emotions and behaviours, but our best responses will come when we resist invitations to feel shame and anxiety about our kids’ emotions and behaviours.   If we resist these invitations, we have a better chance of engaging our thinking brain, of thinking about what goes on for our kids and teens, and then responding from a thoughtful, caring position that shows our love and respectful leadership. 

As an added bonus this will support kids’ and teens’ development as you help them learn to manage themselves and the situations they find themselves in.  And you’ll be supporting them in ways that avoid shaming them and avoid perpetuating shame-based cycles.   Instead, you become a cycle breaker. 


You will feel better, your kids will feel better, and you will have better relationships when you make the shift from parental control to parental responsibility.  It might take some practice but it’s worth the effort.  So, let’s unsubscribe from the myth of control and subscribe to the practice of being responsible for how we respond to our kids to support their development as they journey through life.


 Leonie :)

Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist

Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.

Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice. 

Please seek help from a professional if you require support. 

 Photo Attributions:

All photos Vecteezy Pro



Lerner, H. (2004). Fear and Other Uninvited Guests: Tackling the Anxiety, Fear, and Shame That Keep Us from Optimal Living and Loving. Harper Collins Publishers: New York.

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