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‘Bet ‘ya can’t make me!’ – The Impact Of External Control (Part II)


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In Part I, a distinction was made between two relationship methodologies, both of which are discussed in Dr. William Glasser’s book, Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. Glasser compares the use of External Control Psychology (i.e., manipulate, punish, criticize, blame, nag, and even reward) to Choice Theory, an empowering model based on an internal system of values, upgrading one’s character traits and allowing natural consequences to “police” behaviors. And he warns about the impact of using destructive behaviors of control – that when people are coerced too long, it is often at the risk of compromising the integrity of the relationship, or worse yet, losing it.

We need not go far to understand Glasser’s caution. Just look around! Too often – more than not – parents tend to expend a great deal of energy engaging in power struggles with their adolescent children. How and why these struggles begin vary. Yet there seems to be a common underpinning: each party is seeking to gain control over the other – and win the battle – but at what price?

At some point in your parenting career, think about a time you may have used sarcasm, criticism, yelling, nagging, put downs, preaching or any other manipulative measures of control. Other than explosive reactions, did you ever notice your teen roll his/her eyes, and tune you out? Well, guess what! The sarcastic-like facial gesture usually accompanies an unspoken message that a teen either is unable or unwilling to verbalize for any number of reasons, ranging from fear to lack of safety and trust.

If it were possible to tune into the inner voice of the adolescent at such a moment, we might be privy to any number of thoughts such as: “There you go again; you’re not really listening to me; you don’t understand what I’m saying; you’re not interested in what I’m thinking; no matter what I say I’m always wrong; you don’t ever find anything right with what I say or do; when I do something right, even if you acknowledge it, you’ll make it your business to focus on all (you believe) I do wrong.”

“Sometimes it feels as though you’re waiting in ambush – like a lion awaits its prey and then tears it apart. That’s how you make me feel. You wait, and then you look for something to which you could pinpoint. Okay, so maybe I’ve done something I shouldn’t have done. But why do you have to remind me – repeatedly, in numerous ways – what I did wrong? Do you honestly believe you’ll get me to learn lessons of life?”

In this concluding segment, Debra (name changed) shares with the readership how she shifted from external control to understanding, compassion and choice, and the positive impact it had on her family relationship.

“It was one of those ‘I’d-like-you-to-do-something’ situations. I wanted my son to rearrange (read: remove clutter and clean) his room. Although I don’t normally involve myself with my son’s space, frankly, I was concerned about rodents, and how the state of his room might be conducive to a winter nesting ground for pests.”

“Three years ago – before I became educated, before I even thought there could be any way other than that which I knew – I would have felt very differently about the condition of my son’s room. I would have insisted he clean his room in the manner ‘I’ would want it to be done, and for good reason. I had a belief system that his room, like everything else about him, reflected me and my parenting skills. Besides, I couldn’t stand how disorderly his room had become. Never mind I’d be trampling him in the process. Never mind he’d view my strong-armed tactic and persistence as a confrontation. And never mind we’d end up in a power struggle.”

“With a variety of tools up my sleeve, recently I had an opportunity to put my newer skills into practice. Instead of telling my son to clean up, I asked him when it would be a good time for him to take care of his room. He gave me a day. The day came and went. He gave me another day. Again, that day came and went. Now it was time for plan B, to tell him that if he wouldn’t do it by a specific date, then I would. It’s called natural consequences and it’s a great system! I learned to remove myself from any potential fighting and yelling. As for my son, it was up to him. Whether or not I would be entering his room (a sensitive subject) was a choice ‘he’ would be making.”

“In the long run, I didn’t implement this idea. That night he had asked for the use of my car – for a mere 20 minutes. I took advantage of the situation and magnanimously countered his offer with: ‘You can have my car the rest of the night – after you take care of your room.’ He tried to beg off and I smiled. He understood my message. The room got cleaned. In hindsight, I believe his newer attitude can be linked to the hard work I’ve been putting into our relationship.”

If you’d like to know what I mean by hard work, try this one on for size: “Insinuating to my son that his room was a mess would’ve been easy. But I didn’t. Instead, I indicated his room was difficult to clean. Humiliating him with the obvious, ‘You live like a slob! Why can’t you be more organized? Why can’t you be more responsible?’ would’ve been a no-brainer. But I didn’t. I simply discussed scheduling. Honestly, though, a part of me would’ve loved to say those words, but deep down I knew it would’ve been counterproductive. I have no doubt he would’ve become defensive, angry and utter a few choice words to push my buttons. I’d defend myself by pointing to his failures. He’d then defend himself further, and a battleground would ensue – sounds familiar?”

“That’s why my coaching sessions were a great resource. They provided me with an outlet to express my honest feelings in a safe forum. And once I was able to unload what was on my mind and heart, it freed me to stay focused on my task at hand. The task – to stay in control of my emotions and to refrain from blurting out what might be sitting on my mind – was not easy, yet it was doable. It was manageable because I was trained. Options, perspectives, preferred choices, self-talk are concepts and tools I learned to use. And they were extremely advantageous in helping me understand a vital point: that my son’s behaviors and actions were not a deliberate or intentional act to hurt me. They’re part of his issues as well as his journey. My job was and still is to build my inner strength, patience and compassion, and to keep practicing and discovering when and how I can be supportive in a loving way.”

By now, Debra knows only too well that in a time of crisis or when frustration is overwhelming, the tendency to revert to old habits is often swift and automatic. That’s why Debra still contacts me for a power-call. She might require a jolt of chizuk (encouragement), a different perspective or a calm and confident voice on the other side of the line. And at times, she will call simply to share an “aha” moment. That is the power of a coaching relationship. The supportive nature helps a client sustain a sense of control when life’s challenges may seem to be insurmountable and out of control.

(Note: Although Debra follows the love-tough approach, the solution she used is not a one-size-fits-all answer. Care must be taken in assessing and evaluating each situation and child on an individual basis.)

Debbie Brown is a certified life coach specializing in parent coaching. She is available for private, confidential phone coaching sessions as well as lectures and group workshops. For further information or to express feelings regarding the Parental Perspective topic, Debbie may be contacted at lovetoughcoach@aol.com

If you would like to read Debbie’s archived articles, log on to www.jewishpress.com and in the search box on the home page, type in Debbie Brown.

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