Recently, at bedtime, my daughter commented that grown-ups have it way better than kids. “I wish I could stay up like you and do whatever I want,” she explained — a normal childhood sentiment in a not-so-normal time.
We know that a sense of agency and control is key to happiness. Decades of research at the University of Pennsylvania show that when people believe they can change their circumstances, they feel more hopeful and optimistic about the future.
All of us want to feel in charge. And now more than ever, children need a sense of power over their worlds. So how do we help them find (and experience) it?
Consider these five simple and effective ways to help your child take back control and focus on all they can do!
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Children who feel powerless often focus on things they can’t change. They behave reactively (“It’s not my fault”) versus proactively (“I’m in charge”). To shift this thinking, teaching accountability is vital.
Parenting coach Megan Devine suggests creating a “culture of accountability” at home. This means that:
- Each family member is responsible for their own actions and behaviors.
- Each family member is responsible for following the rules and expectations set by the grown-ups.
- Each family member is responsible for how they respond to stressful or upsetting situations.
Together as a family, review your expectations, rules, and beliefs. Discuss ways your child can be successful (“What can you do to help follow the rules?”). Establish clear consequences for when those expectations are broken (“If you call your sister a mean name, you will lose electronics for the rest of the day”).
Finally, be sure to follow through — accountability works both ways, after all!
Create a circle of control
Control is a tricky concept to explain to a child. But a visual depiction of what they do and do not have power over makes it much less daunting.
Start by discussing the “Circle of Control.” Explain that each day, there are many things we do have a say in and many things we don’t. We feel better when we focus on those things we can change. But first, we have to know what they are!
Next, draw a circle on a large piece of paper. Inside the circle, write your child’s name along with the words “I CAN Control.” Brainstorm a list of things they have power over each day — their words, behavior, and attitude. Draw or write each example inside the circle.
These can include washing my hands, calling a friend, being kind to my sister, and how I respond when my brother takes my toy.
During this exercise, your child might name things that cannot be controlled. When this happens, list those items outside the circle. Label this area, “Things I CAN’T Control.”
These can include the weather, how my sister acts, my parents arguing, and what others think of me.
When a problem arises, prompt your child to consider, “Is this inside or outside my control?” or to identify its location on the visual. Over time, focus on adding to and enhancing what’s already inside the circle — and define that as success!
For many children, wanting to exert control over everything is a natural urge. Unfortunately, it’s also impossible and can lead to anxiety and feelings of helplessness. So how do we help counter that impulse?
Mindfulness is the practice of accepting what is — without automatically trying to change it. Explain to your child that we can’t always control what happens to us, but we do have a say in how we respond to it. We can still choose our attitude.
When your child is faced with out-of-control feelings or a challenge outside their circle of control, school counselor Keri Powers Pye recommends the following mindfulness activity:
Prompt your child to name five things they can control right now in the moment. They can use their fingers to count. The list can include their breathing, their thoughts, their words to themselves, their words to others, and their body.
You can also ask, “Is what’s upsetting you something you can change?” If the answer is no, point out that the problem is here at this moment but could shift. Adding a simple “for now” to the end of any problem statement (“I can’t see my friends for now”) helps us remember that all things are temporary.
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All children have a way of looking at the world around them. Those with an internal locus of control believe they can direct the course of their lives. They attribute their successes to their own abilities and efforts.
On the other hand, many children struggle with an external locus of control. The circumstances and events surrounding them feel outside their power. These children view their successes as fate or even luck.
One of the simplest ways to help your child gain more confidence is by offering effective praise. Studies show that praise must be both specific (“I loved how you kept trying and didn’t give up”) and sincere in order to positively impact self-esteem.
Pointing out real-life cause and effect helps your child connect their actions with positive outcomes. Observations might include, “You studied hard and got a good grade” or “You shared a toy with your brother earlier, and look how he just gave you his extra cookie!”
Understand N.U.T.S and the power of choice
The reasons children experience stress and anxiety are many — from losing a favorite stuffed animal to changing schools. But researcher Sonia Lupien discovered that stressful situations have something in common.
Using the acronym NUTS, she explains that stressors contain (at least) one of the following elements:
N: Novelty (something new)
U: Unpredictability (you couldn’t have known it would happen)
T: Threat to ego (makes you doubt or question your competence or abilities)
S: Sense of control (feeling you have no say over the stressor)
Be sure to label the sources of your own stressors and frustrations (“Being stuck in this traffic jam feels really overwhelming since I don’t have any control over it”). Finally, note what you’ll do to cope with the stressor (“I’m going to take a few deep breaths until I feel calmer”).
As parents, we may tell our children they’re in control — while also managing every aspect of their lives. With the best of intentions, we undermine our attempts at empowerment.
Allowing your child to make important decisions about their life is crucial for their mental and physical health. It even impacts key brain development.
Consider these simple ideas:
- Provide options within established routines: (“Would you rather do your homework now or after dinner?” or “Would you rather leave for dance now or in five minutes?”)
- Read books like What Should Danny Do? by Adir and Ganit Levy or My Magical Choices by Becky Cummings to explore the power of decision-making.
- Encourage participation in household tasks and chores.
- Brainstorm ways they can safely inspire and help the community and make a difference.
Inevitably, situations will arise in which your child can’t have a say. In these moments, simply remind them of their ability to choose their mindset, actions, or what they tell themselves about it. Deciding how to respond is still a choice — and an important one.
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