Latest update: March 5th, 2012
In our rapidly changing world, the idea of control has begun to change quicker than anyone can imagine. A metamorphosis of unparalleled proportion is taking place and many parents feel that they are unequipped to deal with the challenges that it will demand.
Not too long ago, parents could maintain a fair amount of control by limiting their children’s access to the outside world. For example, when I was young, a teenager had to watch TV or go to a movie theater to see the latest show. However, with the advent of home videos, teens could choose their own movies and watch them when their parents were out or asleep. Then the Internet came along. For the first time, children of all ages could choose anything they wanted to see or hear. Some parents chose to fight back by purchasing Internet blockers that filtered out inappropriate content. But what happened when their child was visiting someone else’s home and wasn’t being supervised?
The story doesn’t end there. Suppose parents can control what their children watch at home and with whom and where they play until they’re adults. Until recently, that might have worked. But now with the latest wireless technology that enables rapid transfer of sound, pictures, and movies, the power of control has been taken away from parents and given to teenagers who can watch whatever they want, wherever they want. As communications become faster and more portable, parents can find themselves losing more and more control every day.
Parents wanting control will have to change their strategy. In order to maintain equilibrium (and their sanity), parents need to shift into a new mode – a mode beyond the traditional understanding of control and enter the world of Relationship Theory.
The second C of Relationship Theory reminds us that in order to have more emotional impact, parents need to moderate the way they control their teenagers. This necessitates a shift from using direct control to influencing behavior through indirect control.
Direct control, or what Dr. William Glasser in Unhappy Teenagers: A Way For Parents And Teachers To Reach Them, calls “external control,” is an attempt by parents to impose their will. For example, if a child refuses to do homework, a parent who uses direct control will say, “If you don’t do your homework, you will not go out with friends, receive an allowance or be allowed any more treats on Shabbos.” Direct control is a powerful mechanism used by parents to get what they want regardless of the emotional effects of their actions.
Indirect control, or influence, however, can be achieved by parents looking into why their teenager isn’t doing homework and trying to address the cause and not merely the symptom. It’s all about addressing inner needs and being less focused on a teenager’s accomplishments.
As Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D, explains in his book Successful Relationships At Home At Work And With Friends: Bringing Control Issues Under Control, “Everyone may have the need to wield control, and there are many relationships which may indeed require control. Exceeding an acceptable amount of control invites trouble.”
Parents who aim to wield too much direct control are often viewed by their teenager in a negative light. Most teenagers would say that a controlling parent is manipulative, destructive and unable to relate to them in a meaningful way.
People, including teenagers, suffering from a controlling relationship are likely to hold one or more of the following illusions:
- They are stuck with another person’s definition of them.
- They do not have the right to their own opinions.
- They can earn love and acceptance by abdicating control to another person.
- They are “successful” if they fulfill another person’s vision, even when it does not in any way support their own.
- They must obtain permission to act in matters that are, in fact, their own business.
Controllers struggle to shape the lives of others and often destroy the relationships that they want most to preserve. They usually don’t realize the senselessness of their own behavior.
Most parents don’t believe that they are controlling. This is because they are used to wielding a considerable amount of control over what their children do, so it seems normal. Control to that degree was appropriate from birth to around age nine or ten, when children need healthy borders and to be pointed in the right direction. But troubled teens need something different. They feel that they have grown beyond their parent’s control and that their controlling parents are living in the past.
When direct control is released, parents may experience a different kind of relationship – one that seemed to have been lost a long time ago. Some parents even report that giving up direct control was like giving birth to their child for a second time. When you give up control, you are actually giving life to a more mature and meaningful relationship.
Changing From Direct To Indirect Control
The change from direct to indirect control can also influence the way parents discipline their teenagers. So many opinions exist on the issue of discipline that many parents often don’t know which way to turn. For example, some schools of thought suggest a “tough love” approach while others advise parents to befriend their children. So where does the answer lie? Let’s take a look at a common scenario that happens to parents whether their teenagers are at risk or not.
You come home from a long day of work or have had a stressful day at home with your younger children. Your teenager comes home and tells you that she failed a test, and you know she didn’t do her homework. She also refuses to help you with laundry and tells you she is going directly to her room to play video games. To make the situation worse, she’s rude and doesn’t want to talk to you. So you start yelling at her, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you prepare for your tests? Look, no more video games, no more allowance … no more fun until you get your life together!”
Does this sound familiar? Look back at a time like this when you lost your temper and ask yourself if your yelling made a difference or if it was just a way of discharging your frustration and anger.
In general, the value of discipline can be measured only against the backdrop of the total parent-teenager relationship. If, for example, a parent is focused on a child’s inner needs and the discipline is carefully measured, then it may have a chance to affect the child in a positive way. If, however, discipline is a product of a parent’s frustration or embarrassment, then a teenager will immediately sense that the parent is merely releasing anger.
The relationship is always the key to wielding indirect control on a teenager at risk. Discipline, therefore, can only be used in direct proportion to the strength and quality of the relationship. If a parent has invested in developing the relationship with a teenager, then, when discipline is needed, the child will view it as an extension of the parent’s love and concern. If, however, a parent hasn’t taken the time to invest in the relationship, then discipline is like throwing gasoline onto a burning flame of juvenile anger and disappointment.
Parents who are stuck fighting with their teenagers about their behavior can feel as if they are on a conveyor belt that never stops moving. To change that situation, I suggest shifting parenting into “relationship mode” and creating a supportive environment where teenagers are able “to explore their experiences openly and to reach resolution of their own problems.”
In Part 11 we will take a look at how this worked in the case of a boy whose parents where fighting with him about how he dressed.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is the Executive Director of Shalom Task Force and author of “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach” and “First Aid for Jewish Marriages.” To order a copy, visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com. For more information about Shalom Task Force, please visit www.shalomtaskforce.org. You can e-mail questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, Marriage and Family Therapy, is an expert in marriage counseling, pre-marital education, and helping teens in crisis with offices in Flatbush, Cedarhurst, and Crown Heights. He is a certified PAIRS instructor, and trained as a Level 1, Emotionally Focused Therapist at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, and is a member of AASECT. He is the author of At Risk – Never Beyond Reach and First Aid For Jewish Marriages. To watch his free videos on marriage and parenting and for appointments visit: www.JewishMarriageSupport.com or call 646-428-4723
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