I’m Losing Control of My Child!
By Annie Abernethy
If your parenting aim is well-behaved kids, you might be
doing it wrong.
Over the years, I’ve heard variations of this statement from dozens of parents in my counseling practice. Usually, these parents show up accompanied by their grumpy, sometimes threatening, teenager. I often wonder if it’s safe to shut the door to my office, trapping us all in this tiny space. Under other circumstances, I would cross the street to avoid these unpleasant humans. Nonetheless, here they sit, the pair of them, glaring at me.
What is a therapist to do? Thankfully, this is my jam. I’m all in, because I think I know what the problem is. It’s all right there in the wild-eyed parent’s high-pitched whine: “I’m losing control of my child!” Shall we unpack it together?
This dreadful sentence starts with the word “I’m.”
For many parents, there is an inescapable pressure that starts at the arrival of their first child, and it only intensifies through the years. The sense that “I’m” ultimately responsible for everything that happens to this child; responsible for everything this child learns; responsible for every friendship they make; responsible for keeping sons out of jail and daughters from getting pregnant.
If you’re chuckling at the absurdity, you may not be a parent yet. We parents…group sigh…we feel this pressure daily; moment by moment; sometimes in the middle of the very darkest parts of the night when we’re supposed to be sleeping. And it’s terrifyingly real.
But we should ask ourselves: where does this pressure come from, to turn out perfect, functioning, successful, mature human adults?
For those of us in the Christian tradition, we’ve inherited an expectation of well-behaved, pew-sitting, shiny-faced, obedient little charming treasures that proudly represent a good Christian family. Some of this came through programs promoted by churches that taught us there was a way to parent that was “God’s way.” This “way,” however, turned out to be less about love and more about control; or at least it wedded love and control inseparably. More about that later.
But back to the “I’m.” Even if we change it to “We,” the implication is that it is a purely human endeavor to parent these children. We’ve completely overlooked the tender attention of the Creator, the Eternal Parent represented in Psalm 139; the Dad who doesn’t sleep because He’s counting hairs and pursuing us into the darkness into which we flee. Does He not have an obligation to tend to His Children? Is it possible He has at least as much of an interest in our children as we do?
Of course, we all know God loves our kids. “But what is He doing about it?” we yell into the dark of night. If we’re really honest, our prayers for our children can be reduced to, “If I can’t control them, why won’t You do it?” Trusting our Father with our kids is not easy, but it’s the only way to stay sane, even if we don’t understand it. And if we listen for His answer to our black-of-night cries, we’ll find constant affirmations of His Presence with us and our children.
“Losing.” This is a depressing word, no matter how you read it. And for every parent, it can be a continuous, desperate sensation. Kind of like a film in slow-motion of a tornado or tidal wave, ripping a child from the safety of mama’s arms. But it’s a very short-sighted and limiting emotion. Most of us aren’t actually losing anything. There are so many other verbs to experience with our kids. Connecting. Relating. Delighting in. Discovering.
Step into the Scriptures with me and into the life of Jesus. Imagine Mary and Joseph, traveling home from a lovely, if chaotic, trip to Jerusalem. Their 12-year-old first born son is lost. They have literally lost control of their child. When they find him, what is he doing? He’s in the temple, “being about his Father’s business.” We know that Jesus’ earthly father was not a rabbi or priest, but a carpenter or stonemason. So what does this mean?
Aside from the fact that Jesus was identifying with his own Heavenly Father (which is a whole other discussion), there is something useful for us parents to digest in this story. Jesus’ desire to be in the temple was a clue to his parents about his character and personality and interests, and that is super important. This story can help us as parents reject temptations to control our children.
Listen carefully. What your children love are the avenues through which God has access to their souls. Certainly, that was true about Jesus. But here’s what’s really exciting. This means it can be the avenue for your connection with them, too.
It bears repeating. What our children love and are passionate about are the God-created invitations for relationship, both for God and for us. We dare not ignore that. Some of us do great damage by condemning our children’s interests. And to what end? Ah…that’s “losing!”
So what we end up gaining by being attentive to our kids’ passions is much greater than what we lose by giving up control. Again…connection, real knowing of our kids, and a lifetime of discovery, alongside them, as their beautiful paths unfold.
Dare we address “control?” The first two words of the parent’s statement above make me sad, honestly. But this word? Control? It makes me laugh. Because it’s an absolute illusion. Where did we get the idea that control was something humanly possible? Some of us may even argue it’s not divinely possible!
If we look again at Psalm 139, we notice that our Good Father is not controlling where we stand or sit, when we run away, or even how many hairs we have on our head. He is lovingly observing. Whoa. Imagine a Father being curiously observant instead of controlling?
What’s more, Psalm 139 communicates that our Father is eternally pursuing relationship with His children. Sounds like a parenting plan, doesn’t it? Maybe we can even say it’s parenting God’s way! My experience of attempting to control my children, for the most part, made me feel abusive. The Parent in Psalm 139 does not come close to abuse; rather His attention and protection and tender care inspire the psalmist’s desire for relationship. The child wants to lean into the arms of that Father, thanking Him for his love and trusting Him with his life.
Let’s turn our focus to the words “my child!” in the sentence above. In fact, this is where we find so much of the emotional energy of this statement. This child is mine. It’s similar to the “I’m,” but I’d argue there’s a significant difference. Truly, none of us wants to admit the obvious truth: “My child’s behavior and position in life reflect on me; and she’d better not embarrass me!”
I’ve heard versions of this statement from parents too many times to count: “While my child is under my roof they will obey my rules!” This expression of possessiveness and demanded obedience is toxic to kids. In fact, children are allergic to it. It either produces rebellion that leads to disconnection from you, or submission that leads to your child’s loss of their own identity. I’ve seen it on my office couch played out innumerable times. For children reared in this environment, it’s hard work to reestablish a sense of agency and belief in self. Trust me: for parent and child, it’s a lose-lose.
“My child” thinking can also result in something more nefarious than your child withdrawing from you. It can lead to you as a parent turning away from your child. If we raise our children under this “my child” mentality, it can lead to statements like, “Well, that’s not how I raised you.” It can end in a forced separation that destroys your child’s heart and may harden yours beyond repair. What child wants to come back to a relationship where these types of things have been said? My guess is the prodigal son heard no such things from his father. Meditate on that, parents of prodigals.
Essentially, a parent who rejects “my child” thinking simply refuses to lose their children. In fact, if you truly love your children, you give them the right to hurt you without the threat of losing you. That’s right. They will never experience doubt about your presence and love. Sounds like Psalm 139 dad, doesn’t it?
In summation, parents, since I’m the therapist to whom you bring your surly teens, allow me to review what we’ve been discussing.
It’s not all on you. God is present. He is working and loving you and your children. You are never alone, and neither are your kids. And your loving presence is just as essential as God’s in their lives.
That sensation of loss might just be a lie; especially if you are committed to supporting them, no matter what. Your child is becoming before your very eyes. You gain the opportunity to watch the unfolding of God’s design for your child. And you get to discover with them the beautiful passions that result in connection with God and others.
Control is an illusion. It probably shouldn’t even be in the same sentence with the word “love.” Until loving your child is more important than controlling your child, you will never find peace.
Your job as a parent is not judged by how your child turns out. Remember, God looks at the heart, both yours and your child’s. And you are responsible for the effort, not the outcome. This is not about your value or worth or your ego or ability. Do not pressure your child with “my child” demands.
My hope for parents and teens when they leave my couch is simply this: that the parents’ statement would change from “I’m losing control of my child!” to “I’m more curious than critical, more trusting in God than myself, and I’m here for all of it!”
Annie Abernethy is a licensed professional counselor in private practice. She is a graduate of Regent University’s counseling program and is currently working toward an MA in Theology and Culture from St. Stephen’s University. When not meeting with clients, Annie can be found reading on her front porch, playing or officiating volleyball, and hanging out with her hubby and three adult sons.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love