How to raise a control addict: A recipe for parents

RECIPE 31. First, relax.  This is easy peasy.  Really, it’s much harder not to raise a control addict.

2. Rely on monkey mind.  Remember that we’re all programmed to be control-seeking.  We have these oversized brains that remember stuff, anticipate stuff, worry about stuff, and keep us scared most of the time.  Buddhists call normal human consciousness monkey mind, and it’s your greatest ally in teaching your child they must control people, places and things in order to feel safe.

3. Rely on socialization.  Remember too that society stands ready to help, mainly by forcing kids to adapt to their social environment.  It does this by teaching them that being themselves is much less important than winning the acceptance and approval of others.  This is called socialization, and as a result most kids learn early on to hide important parts of who they are (like what they really think and feel) in order to control how others perceive and respond to them.  (The end result of which is called neurosis.)

4. Limit love. As a parent you can build on the foundation described in (1) and (2) by offering your child what’s called conditional love.  Let them know you accept them when they meet your expectations, but that when they don’t, well, not so much.  (Being a control addict yourself, you probably already do this some of the time.)

5. Judge feelings.  Addicts are people who can’t handle feelings, so it’s essential to teach your kids how not to handle theirs.  Let them know which feelings they can safely express in your presence and which make you uncomfortable.  This can be done verbally or nonverbally.  Verbal statements — “Don’t take that tone with me” or “Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about” or “You’re too sensitive” — are usually effective.  But nonverbal discouragements (like an annoyed expression or a refusal to listen) can be indelible.

6. Add dysfunction.  Dysfunction means any experience that blocks a child from getting his or her emotional needs met.  Exposing them repeatedly to substance abuse (say by a parent or grandparent) is especially effective.  So is exposing them to any sort of abuse – emotional, verbal, physical, sexual.  (Abuse is probably the surest and quickest way to create a control addict.)  Chronic tension or conflict between parents works too.  The basic goal here is to keep kids scared and/or worried, which encourages them to (a) keep scanning the environment for danger and to (b) try to protect themselves by controlling people/places/things.

7. Encourage codependency, which is just a fancy word to describe the compulsion to put other people first — i.e., focus on their needs and feelings, not one’s own.  Say your child is invited to spend time with someone they dislike.  You can encourage codependent choicemaking by asking “How will X feel if you say No?” or speculating about how X’s mom will react if your child declines.  The key here is to keep kids focused outside themselves, so they ignore their own needs and instincts and compulsively seek cues from those around them.

All this sound too hard to remember?  Not to worry.  You can safely forget all of it and end up with a control addict anyway.

E.e. cummings:

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, day and night, to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.

To have even a slight chance of winning, kids needs parents who see the battle as worth fighting.

Otherwise they just become like everybody else.

6 responses to “How to raise a control addict: A recipe for parents

  • Robin Palmer

    I missed you also. I knew that you were having the time of your life with your new grandchild. Hence your article. I have enjoyed your articles on control issues.The world as such is filled with these behaviors that people follow and it occurrs in many different cultures. Can we ever be free of it?

    • Steve Hauptman

      Free? Probably not. But freer, yes. Like growing up, escaping the clutches of control addiction is more or less an endless project.

  • Janet

    Welcome back. Always interesting – but how do you teach empathy without worrying about the feelings of others?

    • Steve Hauptman

      It comes down to the difference between fear and respect. Codependents are scared people. They fear judgment, conflict or rejection, and that’s what drives their worry and controlling. But we learn empathy when someone pays respectful attention to our internal experience. When that happens often enough, it feels only natural to return the favor. So where controlling is a symptom of fear, empathy is a symptom of, well, love.

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