When Parents Are Too Controlling

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There is a difference between teaching a teen, and controlling a teen. Here are four markers that identify a parent who needs to loosen the reins.

Your teenage daughter wakes up one Saturday morning with a plan. She decides to make the whole family waffles, so she gets out the flour, baking powder, sugar, eggs, butter and some vanilla extract, and goes to work. The problem is that your daughter is not quite a culinary chef. In fact, toast and cereal are her only specialties up to this point. As you stumble into the kitchen looking for a bit of morning coffee, you notice the flour on the counters, egg yolk dripping from the table, and smoke pouring from the waffle iron. That’s when your parental instincts kick into overdrive and you turn to your daughter-playing-cook and say, “You’re doing this wrong,” or “That’s not how you mix the batter,” or even “I’ll take over from here.” Discouraged and frustrated, your daughter leaves the kitchen saying, “I quit!” resolved to never try her hand at baking again.

It’s possible that in this scenario, mom and dad don’t know they’re controlling the situation. They may think they are helping their daughter learn how to cook waffles. But there is a difference between teaching a teen, and controlling a teen. Here are four markers that identify a parent who needs to loosen the reins.

Let Me Do That!

Do you want to know if you are too controlling as a parent? One of the clearest signs of a micro-managing mom or dad is the feeling that you have to do everything for your child. If you do your child’s homework, clean up after him, maybe even order food for her at restaurants, you need to back off a little bit. When a parent does everything on their child’s behalf, the child’s decision-making muscles atrophy. They start losing the ability to make their own choices. It may seem beneficial at the time, but controlling every aspect of your teen’s life will only train up an adult who doesn’t know how to control their own life.

Giving your child the chance to make decisions can never start too early. I remember when my son Adam was around seven years old, we went over to McDonald’s for lunch. As we got to the front of the counter, I ordered my food, then turned to Adam and said, “Tell them what you want.” Taken aback, my son looked at me and replied, “I don’t know. Tell them for me.” But I wasn’t going to start down that road. I wanted Adam to start using his decision-making capabilities and not always rely me. So he didn’t order. I got my food, we sat down, and I started munching away happily. After watching me eat for a little bit, Adam said, “Okay, I know what I want.” So we went back up to the counter, and Adam confidently ordered his lunch.

If you’re noticing that you’re suffocating your teen’s choices, now is the time to start backing off. Give your son or daughter an alarm clock, and let them get up for school themselves. Show your teen how to work the washer and dryer, and let them be responsible for doing their own laundry. Let them choose where to go for dinner one night, or decide on the next family vacation. Give your child the opportunity to flex their decision-making muscles.

I Told You So!

Another way to identify if you are exerting too much control in your teen’s life is to examine the words you use around them. Do you use phrases like, “You should have listened to me,” or, “You need to do it my way,” or, “If you love me, you won’t do that”? There are times when we don’t even realize that the words we use are unconscious means of controlling, manipulating, or shaming our kids into doing what we want them to do. Proverbs 16:21 says, “The wise in heart are called discerning, and gracious words promote instruction.”

In our efforts to train up our kids, there’s a temptation to use our words to cajole, threaten, or placate our teens into right behavior. But God’s Word reminds us that “gracious words promote instruction.” We shouldn’t attempt to manage our children by means of verbal control or clever arguments. Take a second look at the phrases your family hears from you on a regular basis. It could be time to strike some words from your parental vocabulary.

You Can’t Handle the Responsibility

Whenever I encourage parents to ease off the domineering behavior, inevitably someone will say, “Mark, you just don’t know my teen. I have to control their life. If I don’t, they will end up making terrible mistakes.” To which I say, “Great!” Mistakes are a great learning tool for a teen. But as parents, we worry about our kids. We don’t want them to feel pain, suffer through bad choices, or have to clean up their own mistakes. So we naturally want to take control. But that only stunts a teen’s growth.

Before a teen gets his drivers license, you or a driving instructor take the time to show him how to work the gas and the brake, how to navigate the freeways, and how to avoid an accident. Once he gets his license, you have to trust that your teen will put those lessons to good use. Is there a chance he will make a mistake? Get a ticket? Have a little fender-bender? Sure. But that doesn’t stop you from letting him drive. And you can’t drive him around for the rest of his life!

Don’t let your anxiety or concern for your teen push you into taking over the wheel. They will make some bad choices. They will fall down. But by giving teenagers some control over their own lives, you are giving them a chance to grow, mature, and become a responsible adult.

You’re Making Me Look Bad

Another reason parents are prone to control their child’s life is because they don’t want their kid’s bad behavior to be a reflection upon them. So they micro-manage their house to put up a façade of perfection. But this attitude can be devastating for both you and your teen. Controlling your child so you look good is the quickest way to build resentment in your home. If a teen has to have the haircut you want, listen to the music you approve of, wear the clothes you pick out, work at the job you chose, or have the friends you like, then you’re inviting rebellion. A teen at the Heartlight residential center once told me, “I’d rather do wrong and be in control, than do right and not be in control.”

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you lower the standards for proper behavior in your home. But if your guidelines are in place only to stroke your parental ego, it’s time to let go.

Parents want their teens to grow. Teens want to grow. Both parties have the same goal. But they often try to reach this objective though opposite means. Remember that over-protective and controlling actions will never help our teens become responsible adults. It’s only when moms and dads loosen the restraints that teens can learn how to control their own lives.

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