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Ask The Therapist: When Your Children Control You

Q: I feel like my two year old is the one in control! My older kids ignore my requests as well. How can I restore my role as parent?

A: If only there was a rule book for parenting! Parenting children is a daunting, exhaustive task.  The problem of control and how to get children to follow directions is familiar to all parents.

Setting Rules and Boundaries to establish better control

Effective parenting includes rule and boundary setting. Boundaries allow children to develop a sense of safety in the world.  Rules help to develop moral functioning. Yet children often ignore their parents.  It can be due to a lack of awareness of their environment or a need to test.  These reactions are normal aspects of development in childhood and adolescence. This can create a difficult cycle in which parents are required to repeat instructions multiple times.  These types of interactions result in stress, loss of patience, yelling, or negative consequences.

Methods such as yelling, blaming or accusing children, comparing them to others, name calling, threatening them with punishments or negative outcomes, and lecturing them may have the opposite of the desired effect. These measures negatively impact the child’s self esteem.  This reduces their ability and will to engage, communicate, and follow directions effectively. Such behaviors also create poor modeling for children, and perpetuate negative discipline cycles. For example, children who are accustomed to a parent asking multiple times and then yelling will learn not to respond to the request until the parent yells.  This interaction facilitates the parent’s feeling of being ignored and need to yell in order to achieve a response.

Developing new patterns of communication to establish better control

Fortunately, there are ways to develop new patterns of communication with children to improve their ability to follow directions. Establishing eye contact when making a request ensures that you have your child’s attention.  Children can often be distracted to the point of not hearing a request. State your request by describing what you would like to be done. Rather than say, “This room is a mess, put away your toys,” frame it as “Let’s put away the toys and then we can eat dinner.” Positive language helps children understand what you want them to do.

With slightly older children, the problem can be described in a ‘noticing’ rather than ‘directive’ manner. When parents give information and explain their requests, they empower children to understand order and consequence. When requests are done in this manner, power struggles are less likely to follow. Instead of giving a long winded lecture or blaming or accusing a child for creating the parent’s frustrations, parents can use a one word directive. Parents can also describe how they are feeling, to help communicate with their child and increase cooperation. With children that can read, using notes to communicate can also help get the message across without testing parental patience. Instead of saying “no digital media for a week” try saying. “what do you thing is a fair consequence for your actions?”

When children continue to ignore

When children continue to ignore directions or test their parents, a measured response is vital as the new pattern is being developed. Giving fair warning of consequences should instructions not be followed helps children predict the outcomes of their actions. This type of parental control reduces the element of surprise, and improves the child’s feelings of safety in the world. Natural consequences can also be used when there is no safety risk involved. Parents should follow through in a consistent manner.   Consequences that have been stated in advance should be followed through.

Whatever methods you choose to employ as you work towards restoring your role as parent, be kind to yourself. As you realize that both parents and children are works in progress. Repetition and consistency may be tedious, but the potential rewards of open communication and disciplined children will be well worth your efforts.

Faigy Parchi LMSW


‘Ask the Kav L’Noar Therapist’ is a series running every fourth Monday of the month. If you would like your question to be considered for the series, please send it to All correspondence will be kept in the strictest confidence.

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