The Concept of Control | Are You Losing It With Your Preteen?

Are you losing control? Control is something parents think about a lot. Control of themselves, control of their children, control of their lives. The concept of control becomes especially troublesome during the preteen years when your children begin to individualize truly – and let’s face it, get a bit mouthier, too! This is a time when you learn what kind of control you have over your children and yourself.

Karen Bush, mother of three from Great Falls, Va., wonders about control regularly now that her 11-year-old has learned how to challenge her. “I sometimes have a problem with controlling my outbursts with my kids,” she says. “This is not a frequent problem, but it seems to happen more as my children get older and think they can negotiate or talk back, even when the clear answer has been given.”

What’s Going On?

Bush had noticed how arguments with her preteen escalate more now than they did when her daughter was younger. This is often the case as children near their teen years. “When she starts yelling and crying, I have been known to yell back at her, then stop myself, say ‘I need a few moments to myself,” and leave her presence until I calm down,” Bush says. “After the incident, I usually do go to her and ask if we can talk in nice tones with each other about what happened. I apologize if I have lost my temper with her and said something I regret. I think staying in control is extremely important – and extremely difficult – for parents.”

Natalie Walker Whitlock from Chandler, Ariz., certainly relates. “I can go and go and go and seem to handle things just fine, and then all of a sudden – bam! – I snap,” she says. “Sometimes I can be just as emotional as my 12-year-old daughter! If I catch myself in time, I will take a step back. If I am getting distraught, I will ask her to wait in her room and then come back in five to 10 minutes to try again – kind [of] like a mom time out.”

With the stresses of adult life, controlling yourself as your preteen misbehaves becomes an even more significant challenge. Virginia Williams, Ph.D., co-author of In Control: No More Snapping at Your Family, Sulking at Work, Steaming in the Grocery Line, Seething in Meetings, Stuffing Your Frustration (Rodale Press, 2006), believes that control in a parenting context does involve both control of oneself and the establishment of enforced limits on what behavior will be acceptable from the child. “Children are going to act in ways that cause the parent to have negative feelings,” says Williams. “We are, after all, human, and all human beings experience anger, sadness, fear, and even contempt. It is important when such feelings arise to evaluate them before reacting. To stay in control, parents need to evaluate any given situation before acting!”

Questions Can Help

Williams gives four questions parents should ask themselves before reacting to negative preteen behavior:

  • Is what the child has just done important? This falls under that adage, “choose your battles!” Did they cross the line and do something serious, or are they merely being irritating? If it’s serious, it may be time for action (controlled action), but if it’s simply annoying, you need to think about your response.
  • Is it appropriate to be responding negatively to what the child has just done? If the answer to the first question is yes, you need to think about your reaction. The child’s age is critical here, as you expect different behavior from an 8-year-old than you do a 12-year-old. You also react differently.
  • Can you modify the situation? “Of course, you can’t change what already has happened, but you can discourage this behavior from recurring,” says Williams.
  • Is taking action worth it? Williams says to consider your child’s needs and your goals for your child, then ask yourself, is taking action worth it? “Perhaps whatever misbehavior the child engaged in was a result of unusual circumstances: too little sleep, too long since eating, too long a car ride,” she says. “Or maybe the circumstances were more normal, and you need to nip this behavior in the bud.”

According to Williams, four “yeses” mean you need to establish limits with your child. Their behavior is not acceptable. Remember, you need to help the child to develop self-control. And also, remember that one of the best ways to do this is to control yourself.

Choosing Your Battles

“You need to evaluate the importance of the situation and the appropriateness of your reaction,” says Williams. “Getting your child to not behave in ways you can objectify – what you can see and hear – may be achievable; getting them to change attitudes and motives is a battle you’re likely to lose. So don’t focus your attention on getting your preteen to stop giving you sulking dirty looks. What do you want to focus on this week? His room? Completing errands promptly? No more mouthiness? You will probably help your child develop more self-control if you focus on one area at a time.”

Remembering to focus on one thing at a time will help you feel proactive about the situation and keep your control. “If you are about to lose control yourself or you have just had enough, ask your four questions right then,” says Williams. “Whether action or deflection is called for, walking away to cool down can be a quite effective means of modeling control. Even if you get four yeses and you need to tell the child it’s time to change the subject, that you are through listening, that you need to calm down first, the child is learning that negative feelings are natural. It’s important to be able to calm down, and it’s important to address negative situations.”

Control is a tricky thing to learn. If you have a hard time controlling yourself, how much more difficult is it for a child whose hormones are raging and is facing the pressures of adolescence? Ask yourself the four simple questions, and always remember they are watching – and modeling – you.

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