The Difference Between Being In Control And Being Controlling

Continuum Concept, Attachment Parenting

It’s a simple fact that children need security in order to thrive. The most important aspect of this is providing them with a strong and confident role model in their lives, in the form of a loving parent. Children need to be able to rely on us to take care of them, lead them, and guide them, and as such it is vital that we know how to hold our own and remain strong when things seem to be spiralling out of control.

When the children are fraught and tired, when the car breaks down, when dinner gets burned, it is no good us crumbling in to pieces and losing our cool. It doesn’t help the situation, and worse than that, our lack of control and clarity is frightening to a child. If Mama doesn’t know what to do, what on earth will we do? This fear and uncertainty can lead to clinginess, tantrums, and inappropriate behaviours emerging from our children. It is up to us to be the adult, difficult as it can be sometimes, and regain control.

But this can often be misinterpreted – there is a big difference between being in control and being controlling. There are times when you have to be in charge. When its time to leave the swimming pool, it’s nearing closing time and you have to move on, but your child wants to stay, you have to be the one who gently and lovingly makes that difficult decision, which wont always be met with joy. When your child refuses to leave the house, and you know that you both need fresh air and socialisation to function happily, you have to be the one to make that choice. When your child gets angry because you want to eat something (yes, it happens!) you have to stand firm and explain that it is important for you to eat and as such will be continuing with this task. We can do all of this gently and empathetically, but it doesn’t change the fact that sometimes our decisions are final. This is actually beneficial to our children in learning boundaries, cultural expectations and in guiding them in their journey to adulthood.

Bending to a child’s every whim and desire may seem like the gentle option, but it is in fact very unhealthy for them, not to mention completely impossible much of the time. In our busy lives, living in nuclear families with no option of leaving our children with others at home while we go off to do the food shopping, we sometimes have to make these difficult choices, for the good of the whole family.

But being in control is far different from being controlling. Since we live in such a way that sometimes we have to overrule our children’s preferences, it is important to give them back as much free choice as we can during the rest of their time. Decisions about their play, or how to conduct an activity can be placed back in their hands. And sometimes this requires a little perspective on our part.

You may think that bricks should be used for tower building, but what if your child decides that they are more fun to throw? As long as you move the breakables and remind them to be careful of others, is there really an issue here? It may require a little creativity – perhaps you could place cushions as a target, or open the door and let them outside to throw them safely, but could you make this work? What if they decide to add water into the mix? Instead of stopping the activity in its tracks, could you instead provide a bowl, a waterproof mat or a towel? Try to see the activity from the child’s perspective – they are not hemmed in by our ideas of what a particular item “should” do. Their minds are open, and whilst we may see their games as destructive or making mess, they are busy learning hand eye coordination, cause and effect, what happens when a wooden block gets wet, look how it changes colour, smells differently, feels in your hand. These are all valid learning experiences .

Our ideas of how play should look can interfere with these valid play choices. We worry about being judged, about teaching our children how to play “properly” – but that is not our business, a child has all he needs to create wonderful games within his own imagination. We are the ones who cage them, put them in boxes and tame their wayward methods.

But all the while we are squashing their brilliance, their initiative and drive, their ability to create and experiment, explore and discover.

The more controlling we are in overriding and interfering in their decision making, the more they will fight back to regain what is rightfully theirs – their free will. And as they fight back and their cries for freedom become all the more stronger, we can look at what’s happening and realise that in this situation, no one wins.

It’s a difficult lesson for us as parents to learn when to step back and shut our mouths, and how to let go, but our children are little people in their own right. They deserve the ability to make their own choices and enjoy their freedom.

Often the thing we are trying to control doesn’t even directly affect us. When it is something that affects you or the rest of the family, leaving you standing out in the cold for hours because your child refuses to leave the park, or unable to do what you need to do because your child becomes furious whenever you try, that’s the time to step up and be in control. When it’s muddy hands and sticky faces, close your mouth and give them some space.


What do you think about this distinction? Is enabling your child the freedom to make decisions, and even to make their own mistakes something you find easy, or do you struggle with knowing when to step back? Let me know in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “The Difference Between Being In Control And Being Controlling”

  1. Thank you for that! I have sadly been that parent, standing in the cold and hot for that matter! That was really well put. I have discovered slowly that my child needs me to say no at certain times. I wish I could have read this article 12 months ago. Love your book and articles you’ve been my go-to help when I need to get some perspective! Thank you. Take care x

  2. Oh, l wish l new this 55 years ago, l was a smother mother, gave them evrything n was mad with my husband when he was disciplining them and alla result of my own upbringing l feel as my parents were so awfull to us so l became determined not to be like them so much so that l over compensated

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