How To Let Go Of Control-Based Parenting


Recently, I was doing some reading about parenting styles when I came across a parenting quiz. I was trying to answer the questions, but I felt stuck. All of the questions were worded in such a controlling way.

One question asked: “When your kids whine and act out, you:

a) get mad and send them to their rooms,

b) give in to stop the whining, or

c) don’t give in and afterward explain better ways that they can express their frustrations.”

Which of these choices is most effective?

Choice A puts all of the control in the parent’s hands while the child must conform. Which teaches: Displays of big emotions are not ok. Behavior that doesn’t agree with mom is not acceptable. I can be with the family when my behavior meets my mom’s expectations.

Choice B puts all of the control in the child’s hands so that the parent must conform. Which teaches: Screaming and yelling is how I get what I want. Also, mom doesn’t really want to deal with my emotions. When my emotions are too big, then mom just finds a way to shut them off ASAP. Displays of big emotions are not ok.

Choice C might be friendlier but it still puts the control in the hands of the parent. This choice sets up an us-versus-them mentality with the idea of “giving in.” I often see this technique when a child has a tantrum – the parent benignly ignores the child and says “I’ll talk to you again when you calm down.”

What does this teach the child? Well, at least dad won’t get angry when I show emotion but he also doesn’t really want to deal with it. He’ll only talk to me when he likes my behavior. Displays of big emotions are not ok.

Notice and similarities?

In each scenario there is one person in control and one person made to submit, and all three tell the child that big emotions are not ok!

What We Want Kids To Learn

What we call “misbehavior” always has a cause. We might think the cause is petty, but to your child, it is very real and very important.

Any solution that ignores the reality of the child’s emotions not only won’t work in the short term (they’ll be even madder that Mom and Dad don’t care), but they can be crippling in the long term as the kid never learns to handle their emotions.

I do want my kids to learn:

1. That they can identify their emotions and self-regulate their behavior.

2. That I love them regardless of their behavior.

3. That living in a family means finding ways to meet everyone’s needs.

The goal is not to suppress the behavior in the moment but to teach the child how to deal with their feelings now and in the future.

My daughter’s first tantrum was after riding the carousel at the zoo. She absolutely collapsed in tears and screaming when we had to leave.

I think “not giving in” would normally look like me rationalizing why we aren’t riding the carousel again: “You already rode the carousel, and now it’s time to go.” Rationalizing tends to look and sound cold and dispassionate.

Instead of worrying primarily about giving in, I tried to see things from her perspective – and with the same importance that she was putting on the experience.

I got down to her level and said, “The carousel was really fun, wasn’t it?”

She nodded.

I continued, “It’s hard to stop when something is so fun, isn’t it?”

Again, she nodded.

“You want to ride the carousel again, don’t you?”

Again, she nodded, and her tears were starting to subside.

“Well right now, we have to go home, but how about we come back next week and ride the carousel again?”

She nodded again, wiped her eyes, and calmly followed me out of the zoo (note that this is an example of the DERA method I expounded on here)!

Seriously, I went home and Facebooked that baby! It was like a scene out of a parenting book. And I did it. And it worked. I felt like Rocky jumping with my fists in the air at the top of the steps.

It wasn’t my job to “control” the situation by not giving in or by ending the emotional display as soon as possible. My job was to help her through her big emotions by showing her that her emotions are ok and Mommy cares about them.

Personally, I’ve found that the effects of empathy just cannot be overestimated.


What’s the Secret to Letting Go of that Control?

I know that for me, the need to control is always just below the surface. When my kid screams like a banshee, I’m not immune to the stares or the fear that I look like a “bad” parent.

Here are seven ways I stay on track:

1. Remind Myself Why I Choose to Parent in this Way

I have a mantra: “I want to empower my kids, not have power over them.”

This is a powerful reminder to me that you can’t weild power and give others power at the same time.

What is it about Feminist Parenting that first rang true to you or turned you on to the idea? That idea in a single sentence can be a great reminder in times of stress.

2. Ask Myself What I Can Teach My Child About How Healthy Relationships Work

For example, when my daughter smeared yogurt on the walls, it seemed very immediate. Focusing on the mess, I might just yell and punish.

But when I try to forget about the yogurt and instead remind myself to handle this in such a way that she learns something about how healthy relationships work, then I am better able to focus on modeling empathy, respectful problem-solving, and cooperation.

3. Assume the Best

Sometimes I have to repeat this over and over.

When I’m looking at a mess or a tantrum or a hurt sibling, it is so easy just to explode in frustration.

When I remember to assume the best, I can take a different angle on the situation.

4. Use the DERA Method

I described this in more detail here. Basically, DERA is a convenient set of steps for responding to your children that helps you veer off the “power over” track and onto the “empower them” track.

5. Look for HALT TOT

HALT TOT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Thirsty, Overstimulated, or in need of a Toilet.

I find that unwanted behavior usually crops up when I’ve neglected one of these things.

6. Remember that You Can Be Stuck in HALT TOT

Oh yes, parents can have it, too!

If I’m reacting poorly to my kids, I usually do a self-check for what might be happening inside of me.

I would say 9-times-out-of-10, when my children have a tantrum, they are reacting to my mood. I’ve been short with them, not paying attention to them, or not listening to them.

It can be stressful to think of how much you can influence the mood of your children, but it can also be empowering.

Your smiles and positive attitude will spread faster than this year’s flu!

7. Apologize.

Our society is woefully lacking in apologies, in my opinion.

There is an idea that it shows weakness.

When you haven’t parented in the way you would like, say so. Just tell your kid, “Mommy really lost it earlier, huh? Sorry about that. I’ll try better.”

You can tell them that you were hungry or tired so that they can see how those things affect moods, but most importantly, they learn that your mood is not you.

You can have a bad mood and not be a bad person – and so can they.

For many of us (myself included), this type of parenting is so far from the norm that it’s downright scary. Not only was I not parented this way, but my peers view this type of parenting as the antithesis of “good” parenting.

Cooperation, apologizing, and “developing a relationship” are exactly the ways, so the common view goes, to raise a disrespectful, entitled brat.

I’ll admit that sometimes I worry about that – about being a “bad” parent in my quest to be a “good” one.

Whenever I get worried though, inevitably my daughter will show me otherwise. The other day, when her two-year-old brother hit her, my now four-year-old daughter said, “Hands are not for hitting. They are for loving. If you want my toy, just ask and we can share.”


I’m not saying this happens every day. Far from it. But when she does mirror my peaceful parenting in dealing with her brothers, I know that it is sinking in.

Add to that years of experience and maturity, and I feel sure I’m raising a young woman with compassion and resilience.

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Paige Lucas-Stannard is a Parenting Writer and Educator at Everyday Feminism. She’s a former NASA research librarian happy to be home raising her 3 IVF babies after nearly a decade of infertility. She blogs about infertility, parenting, and women’s issues at Baby Dust Diaries as well as being the founder of the gentle discipline and co-founder of the breastfeeding rights She likes to cook and sew and has, in general, become her mother. Happily. Follow her on Twitter @babydust.. Read her articles here.