Parental Control - Real or Illusion?

Parental Control – Real or Illusion?

Parental Control – Real or Illusion?

If you’ve read Emotional Development of 2 year olds – Part 1 and Emotional Development of 2 year olds – Part 2, you are aware of what’s happening in your toddler’s brain. And it’s a bit of chaos. But even knowing that, you may feel like it’s not an excuse and they should be able to “control” themselves and behave better. And if they can’t control themselves, then surely YOU can “control” them. The question from parents that I most often hear is “My toddler misbehaves whenever I’m busy. How do I “control” them before it gets worse?” The answer is very simple. “You don’t”.

What are you trying to “control”?

But let’s back up a bit and try to understand why parents feel the need to “control” their children’s behavior. My theory is that those of us who feel we need to “control” our children were raised by authoritarian parents. (Read about the 4 Parenting Styles here). Our parents exuded control over us our whole life and have instilled in us the belief that good parents “control” their children. And we all want to be good parents, right? We feel that if we don’t “control” our feral monkeys, they will spiral us into chaos and anarchy. But the truth is, we don’t need to “control” them, we just need to understand what motivates their behavior and act accordingly.

Our job as parents is to set up boundaries and consequences. And also remember that consequences don’t equal punishment and should never be punitive. The point of consequences is to either encourage or discourage a particular behavior. For example, the consequence of touching a hot stove is burning your hand. The consequence of looking where you’re going is avoiding a fall. Both are consequences of actions, just one is a positive consequence and one is a negative one.

So while you can attempt to “control” your children, it’s a losing battle in the end. You will eventually burn out and your children will not have positive feelings towards you. So should you just let your child run amok?  Absolutely not. Your job is to teach your child appropriate behavior and to set up appropriate boundaries. So how do you do it? 

A better alternative to “control”

When your child is an infant (under 1 year), you really can’t set boundaries for them. But I do encourage you to give them a firm but calm “No” when they do something you don’t like. For example, if they pull your hair, throw food on the ground, keep trying to get something that you don’t want them to get. But don’t expect much adherence from them.

Now when your child becomes a toddler (between 1 and 3 years old), you can expect them to understand more and adhere to boundaries better. The older they get, the more you can ask of them. But still keep in mind that their frontal lobe is just starting to develop and while they may try to control themselves, they will ultimately fail. And this is why replacement behaviors are a much better strategy than any sort of punishment. 

Parental Control - Real or Illusion?

What is a replacement behavior? Simply put, it’s a more acceptable behavior to the one being exhibited. For example, you’re trying your best to cook dinner and your 2 year old decided it’s a great time to draw on the walls. Don’t they always decide to do things like that when you’re busy? Your initial reaction is probably panic and anger. It’s so tempting to yell at your child, maybe even hit them, tell them what a bad kid they are for doing this. And now YOU are spiraling out of control and feel that the only way to regain it is by trying to “control” your horrible, misbehaving toddler.

Instead, YOU should take a breath and think rationally. What are you going to accomplish by being aggressive towards your child? They may stop what they’re doing, but they will also now cry and be hysterical. So now you’re both out of control. It’s not a great situation.

Here is a much better solution. Come up to your child, engage them physically (take their hand, put your hand on their shoulder, etc), make sure you have their attention, and tell them “No, this is not appropriate. We don’t draw on the walls. But I see you want to draw. Here is paper for you. This is where we draw”. And have them sit closer to you, so you can keep an eye on them. So while you are not exactly “controlling” what they’re doing, you are now in “control” of the situation. And just keep in mind that you will need to repeat this many times before you child is able to draw on paper and not on walls.

What’s motivating your child?

When you think of an appropriate consequence for your child’s behavior, try to consider their motivations. So the imaginary 2 year old drawing on the wall is most likely just motivated by boredom. The crayon and a wall are just a tempting way to have fun. So the consequence should be a replacement behavior with a reminder that the previous behavior was not appropriate.

But when your child is throwing everything, yelling, pulling on your favorite curtains while you’re on the phone, they are seeking your attention. And there are a few ways to deal with attention seeking behavior. If you are doing something that you can involve your child in (i.e. cooking, laundry, dishes), involve them. Use it as a teaching and connecting moment. Even if it slows you down, it will pay off in the long run.

Parental Control - Real or Illusion?

But if you’re doing something you can’t involve them in (answering emails, chatting on the phone), explain that you are busy and can’t play at the moment. Then give them something else to do (replacement behavior). It might be wise to keep special toys for those occasions that are especially captivating. And it’s also OK to give some screen time, if you truly need them occupied.

Parental Control - Real or Illusion?

So in a way, all those things amount to “control”. Except instead of controlling the child, you are controlling the situation. And in the meantime, you are setting boundaries and teaching your child appropriate behaviors. In the end, everyone wins.

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Parental Control - Real or Illusion?

34 thoughts on “Parental Control – Real or Illusion?”

    1. Thank you for your comment, Flossie. Absolutely, focus more on the positive and do your best to ignore the negative. At the end of the day, attention whether negative or positive is still attention.

  1. I love this! Currently trying to control my 2 year old and it’s just chaos. I’m definitely going to utilize some of these tips. I hate how frustrated I get quickly because they’re misbehaving.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Robin. Yes, toddlers can be very frustrating. My 3.5 year old drives me up the wall sometimes. I really do hope you can implement the strategies I suggested. They really do make a big difference. Just remember that in a battle of wills with a toddler, you will lose every time.

      1. I LOVE this perspective and these very actionable suggestions. It surely isn’t always easy but the effort is definitely worth it for everyone

  2. I agree with reasoning featured in this blog post. We can not control our children. They are unique individuals with their own personality. We can control situations but we can never control another person. Nothing good will come out of being aggressive with our children. We need to lovingly guide our children and nuture them.

  3. These are great suggestions. I always liked the advice to tell kids what they can do instead of saying “Don’t” do something. For example instead of saying “Don’t throw rocks” say something like “You can walk on the rocks” or “Stack the rocks”. Like your example, tell the child, “You can color on the paper.” I also like telling them calmly that the behavior is inappropriate, such as in the coloring on the wall example.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Julie. Yes, we can do so much just by changing the language we use with our kids. And we can get so much further with them that way.

    2. This is really great! My fiance and I both grew up in authoritarian homes, and he’s totally comfortable with that parenting style but I haven’t been. So I definitely work at being a more mindful parent! Your suggestions here are so helpful and make a lot of sense

      1. Thank you for sharing, Christine. Yes, it’s so hard when we want to parent in a different way than we were parented. It’s definitely a work in progress. Kudos to you, for being a mindful parent.

  4. Replacement behavior is definitely the best solution though sometimes hard to remember in the moment. This post helps to refresh my memory with the goal reaction.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Natalie. Yes, it’s tough to remember in the moment. I struggle with implementation myself. We are all human and don’t always succeed.

  5. AMEN! I couldn’t agree with you more. Humans are born with a need for control over their own lives and yet parents often try to take that away. I love how you explain what replacement behaviors are. I just call it redirection. Lots and lots of redirection happening in our house. It’s amazing to watch as my kids got older how doing what you are teaching here really does help them eliminate all unwanted behaviors…without having to control them. Love!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Adriane. Yes, it can easily be called redirection. That’s exactly what it is. And it makes life so much better and easier.

  6. These are great tips for first time parents. I find that replacement behavior is similar to the redirection strategies I used as a teacher, and they’re very effective.

  7. This post is great for so many reasons. I often find myself getting mad or frustrated and want to yell, but love the tip to taking them by the hand and talking to them.

  8. My toddlers are all kiddos now, but I definitely agree about the beauty of replacement behaviors! Learning that was a game changer for me as a young mother.

  9. I think to practice this with my toddler. It’s tough, but it works most of the time! My parents definitely feel that I’m being too “permissive” of a parent because I don’t try to control or discipline my children.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Dawn. I feel you so much on this. My parents love making negative comments about my parenting and saying everything is a problem. When they get to me enough, I get mad and try being more harsh with my son. It never works and leaves me feeling awful.

  10. In my parenting style, I’m trying to be more of a positive parent. I don’t tell my daughter to do things, I ASK her to do things and I make sure to use my manners as well. “Tamsin, will you feed the dogs please?” “Thank you for feeding the dogs, that was such a great help!”

    I’ve noticed that when I try and “control” her by telling her what to do, it doesn’t work out. So I’ve been doing it this way for about 6 months now, and it’s going great for us. It also helps keep me calm and not freak out on the negative things that happen.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Rikki. This sounds like such a great way to parent. We need to show our kids respect and then they will respect us in turn. It’s hard to expect respect from our kids when we don’t show respect to them.

  11. I have to admit that it’s a struggle not to be in control, although I do try hard not to. Especially our teenager. I did have authoritarian parents, although i was rebellious by nature.

    1. Thank you for sharing, May. I think a lot of us struggle with this, especially when we are the product of authoritarian parenting. I find myself doing exactly as my parents did, even though when I rationally think about it, it’s not an approach that I think is a good one.

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