Mother and teenager

Parenting: Succeed by Letting Go of Control

Parenting can often feel like you’re in a constant battle with your child. As humans, we are all born with five basic needs that we spend our lives trying to satisfy: survival, love & belonging, power, freedom, and fun. In the mostly unpredictable rollercoaster that is parenting, power and freedom can combine to create the competitive need cycle.

When people are in a competitive need cycle, they are trying to gain more power and freedom in their lives. With a parent and child, this is typically represented by the parent refusing to consider allowing their child to do something. Parents try to meet the power need by keeping their child safe, and also the freedom need by extricating themselves from the worry of wondering about their child while the child engages in the forbidden activity. The child, on the other hand, tries to meet the power need by having new experiences and exploring the world, and also the freedom need by gaining time away from restrictive parental supervision. When a parent and child are both in their competitive need cycle, a power struggle naturally ensues.

I have four examples of situations and possible solutions, but first, as a parent, you need to consider shifting your focus to your cooperative needs of love & belonging and fun. Why are you the one who has to make a change? Because it is you who is dissatisfied with the situation. Accept the fact that you cannot control your child’s behavior, as much as I know you’d like to at times. The only person’s behavior you can control is your own.

Since it is you and not your child who is reading this article, I’m talking to you about what you can do to improve the situation.

Staying focused on changing your child will only lead to frustration and a breakdown of your relationship. You will never be successful at a lasting, long-term change in your child. He or she may acquiesce in your presence, but there won’t be an internal motivation to change required for any long-term transformation. So, let’s look at what you do have control of, and that’s how you respond to your child’s push toward more power and freedom.


Rebecca’s parents were frustrated over their lack of success with enforcing Rebecca’s bedtime. Not only would Rebecca be grumpy due to inadequate sleep, but her parents were also hoping for some quality time with each other without children around.

After evaluating what was really important, the parents spoke to Rebecca about no longer enforcing her bedtime; she could go to bed whenever she pleased, as long as she was able to get up in the morning, get to school, and be relatively pleasant with family members. However, there would be a household quiet time that would begin at 9 PM. At that time, everyone needed to be in his or her own bedrooms, engaged in quiet activity.

These parents couldn’t wait to tell me how great it worked! Since Rebecca had no parents fighting with her to go to bed, she could no longer meet her power need by fighting with them. Consequently, she began to go to bed when she got tired and stopped fighting sleep. Steve and Mary were able to get the quiet couple time they needed, so everybody won!


At age eleven, Veronica wanted blonde highlights in her hair just like her friends had. Her mother, Denise, was opposed to the idea. While discussing the situation with me, Denise expressed that she was concerned about the maintenance costs and the damage that would be done to her daughter’s beautiful brown hair if she started applying chemicals to it at her early age. Of course, Denise had explained none of this to Veronica, and instead said, “No, you are too young to have your hair highlighted. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you should.” Does that sound familiar? I suggested that she tell Veronica her real concerns.

When revisiting their conversation, Denise agreed to give Veronica the highlights as a birthday gift, but then asked what her plan was for upkeep. Denise explained that she would have to have the highlighting process done every two months or so and that it would cost about $60 each time. Denise offered to give Veronica money for doing extra chores around the house, but since Veronica had agreed to this before and failed in the follow through, Denise asked, “If history repeats itself and you don’t have the money you need for the highlights, are you prepared for what your hair will look like once the roots grow out?” She also discussed with Veronica the concern for the health of her hair. She said that starting to put chemicals into one’s hair at eleven did not bode well for maintaining healthy looking hair into adulthood.

Denise marveled at what happened next; what had been a heated battle between them for months turned into a non-issue. Veronica decided she no longer wanted highlights in her hair. She realized that she probably wouldn’t do the chores for the extra money, and that she didn’t want to look “weird” while her hair grew out.

It’s amazing what happens when we align ourselves with our opponent’s resistance. It’s a concept that has been taught in martial arts within the physical realm for centuries, but it can easily be applied to the mental realm in parenting just as easily.


This third scenario involves a mother’s horror when she learned what her eight-year-old daughter had done against her wishes. This mother, Linda, sent her daughter, Carrie, to swim camp. Carrie had been a swimmer for quite some time, but this was the first time she was exposed to older swimmers at camp. She learned from them that a good way to shave time off her record is to shave the hair off her entire body. Now what hair could an eight-year-old have? It didn’t matter—Carrie was determined to shave everywhere except the hair on her head. Linda, in horror, forbid her to do it.

What was Linda concerned about? It was a multitude of things. First of all, her daughter was too young to start shaving. Secondly, she was concerned that if she began shaving, then her hair would grow back very dark and course. (Of course, this is an ‘old wife’s tale’ that many of my generation were exposed to.)

Linda was shocked to learn that despite her refusal to allow Carrie to shave, Carrie later went into the bathroom, took a dry razor to her skin, and shaved anyway. Unbelievably, at her next swim meet, she had the best time of her short life. Did shaving help her or was it the power of her belief that the shaving helped? I can’t answer that question. However, the point is that what actually happened was worse than the original fears Linda had about Carrie shaving.

If Linda listened to what Carrie wanted and was willing to consider the request, she may have spoken to a pediatrician and learned that her second fear was unfounded. Then she might have been able to assist Carrie in shaving safely instead of with a dry razor and no supervision at all.

What parents often fail to realize is that just because they tell their child no does not mean that their child will dutifully obey. Often a “no” means that their child will proceed anyway, just stealthily and without parental supervision. When this occurs, the child is doing something the parent doesn’t approve of and the parent has no idea. Parenting like this leaves no opportunity to discuss the possible dangers and concerns.

My Children & Their Friends:

When my boys were teenagers, lots of their friends had parents who refused to give permission for them to attend those parties where there would be alcohol and no parental supervision. On the surface, this makes perfect sense. What responsible parent wants their child at a party drinking without any adults to intervene if there is a problem?

Of course, there was an easy way to mend this: that child would tell their parent that he or she was going to stay overnight at a friend’s house, and that friend would do the same to his or her own parents. And so, the result of refusing to grant permission, was two children out all night, doing God knows what, without any adult having any information about what was happening.

When my children came to me for permission to go to a party, my approach was to discuss the things I was afraid of. If they had a reasonable answer for what they would do in the scenarios I was concerned about, then I would generally allow them to go. If they couldn’t address certain situations, they would not be permitted to go until there was a reasonable plan in place to address my concerns.

What would they do if offered drugs? What would they do if someone showed dangerous signs of having too much? What would they do if violence broke out or things got out of hand? What would they do and what did they expect me to do if the party were raided by police? Over time, we discussed all these situations until I was satisfied that my children could handle them if they ever came up. This resulted in my peace of mind. I generally had enough information about where my children were going to be and what they were going to be doing to satisfy me.

Of course, this is not an easy way to parent, and there’s no guarantee that your children will always make the best decision. However, parenting this way means you are no longer the person your children must fight in their attempts to get their needs met. It keeps your relationship with your children strong and influential. It allows you, as the parent, to discuss situations and possibilities you normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to discuss. Most importantly, it helps your children to become better decision makers, problem solvers, and to anticipate circumstances before they arise.

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