Why Control Doesn’t Work

By Timothy L. Sanford, MA, LPC
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These two examples show why controlling parents aren't effective when they interact with teens.

Using the four styles of interacting (HOLD, GRAB, TOSS and FOLD), there are four possible “dances” that can occur when two people interact. Let’s look at these dances, using four versions of a teen-parent situation I’ve encountered in my counseling. Of course, I’ve made some changes in the actual dialogue and added some hypothetical elements. Consider the roles of control and influence in each dance.

Dance One: the HOLD and GRAB

In this example the teen is a HOLDer. Remember, that’s the type who takes responsibility for what he can control. He says, “What’s mine is mine.”

But the parent here is a GRABer. She tries to take responsibility for things she can’t control. She says, “What’s yours is mine.”

hold and grab grid

I’ll play the part of the 16-year-old son and use my name in the story.

TIM: “That’s so dumb! I can’t believe I flunked the written part of my driver’s test. Man, I can ace the driving part! I guess I didn’t study enough.”

(Notice how I’m taking ownership of my failed test.)

MOM: “Honey, I’m so sorry you didn’t pass the test. Come here. I’ll make you your favorite brownies. I’m sorry I didn’t help you enough; I’ve just been stressed out with your dad traveling so much lately. I guess I should have helped you study more. I’m sorry. I didn’t even think about giving you the sample test I saw on the Internet last week. Go get the book and I’ll study it with you.”

(Mom is GRABing, trying to control the outcome by taking ownership and blame. It’s not the same as validating my feelings and helping me take ownership. She’s not trying to influence me, she’s trying to fix something that isn’t hers to fix.)

TIM: “It’s okay, Mom. I can handle it. I’m just frustrated, that’s all.”

MOM: “No, I’m sorry I haven’t been more involved in your life lately. Let me help you.”

TIM: “Mom, I’ll be okay.”

MOM: “I said I would help you, and I will.”

TIM: “But, Mom — ”

MOM: “No ‘buts.’ Go get the manual. I’ll quiz you right now on the questions you missed.”

This dance happens a lot more than you might expect. We may not notice it because the teenager’s plan for “fixing” things may seem unwise or incomplete. Still, even if you’re trying to “help,” that’s no reason to reach for the responsibility yourself.

This dance produces tension and strain. Why? Because both participants are trying to control the same thing. And two people can’t own the same thing at the same time.

In this case, the teenager is using a healthy style of interacting. The parent isn’t. The teen is trying to HOLD on to control that belongs to him, and Mom is trying to take it away. Get ready for a fight, because teenagers don’t want to be controlled or manipulated — directly or covertly.

Mom needs to take her hands off and let “Tim” learn on his own. She can influence what he does next, but her stab at control won’t help either of them.

Dance Two: the TOSS and GRAB

In this example the teen is a TOSSer. Remember, that’s the type who refuses responsibility for what he can control. He says, “What’s mine is yours.”

The parent here is a GRABer, as in Dance One.

toss and grab grid

TIM: “That’s so stupid! I can’t believe I flunked the written part of the driver’s test. Man, I can ace the driving part! Mom, why didn’t you make me study that stupid manual more?”

(Notice how I’m trying to push ownership of my failed test onto Mom, expecting her to take the blame and fix the problem.)

MOM: “Honey, I’m so sorry you didn’t pass the test. Come here. I’ll make you your favorite brownies. I’m sorry I didn’t help you enough; I’ve just been stressed out with your dad traveling so much lately. I guess I should have helped you study more. I’m sorry. I didn’t even think about giving you the sample test I saw on the Internet last week. Here, go get the book and I’ll study with you. I’ll also call the DMV to see if I can make arrangements to retake the test without having to pay for it. Okay?”

(Mom is GRABing again.)

TIM: “Where’d you put the book, anyway?”

MOM: “I don’t know. What did you do with it?”

TIM: “How should I know? You’re the one who’s always going around and cleaning up my stuff — putting it where I can never find it again.”

MOM: “I’ll look for it as soon as I finish paying these bills.”

TIM: “Whatever.”

Does this sound familiar? It’s far more common than Dance One, especially in homes with a teenager. The terrible thing about this dance is that it “works.” The teenager TOSSes; the parent GRABs. There’s no real tension. It’s like you’re playing a game of catch.

One problem with this dance is that the TOSSing goes in only one direction — away from the teen and toward the parent. It’s not a healthy way to interact. Another problem is that the parent isn’t influencing; she’s still trying to control the outcome by GRABing. The teen’s TOSSing seems to invite this, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for either party.

When a parent dances this way, it’s often because this recording is playing in his or her jukebox: If it’s my fault, then I can fix it. If I can fix it, it will turn out the way I want it to. The parent is trying to control a part of the world he or she can’t control.

The lack of tension in the “TOSS and GRAB” dance fools some parents and teens into thinking all is well on the Western Front. It fools some parents into thinking they’re acting responsibly. It also gives teens a false sense of power — and parents a false sense of being needed.

Taken from Losing Control & Liking It, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2009, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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About the Author

Timothy L. Sanford, MA, LPC

Tim Sanford is a licensed professional counselor who works in Focus on the Family’s counseling department and in his own private practice. He is also a pastor, a public speaker and the author of two books, Losing Control and Liking It and I Have to Be Perfect. Tim and his wife, Becky, have two grown daughters and reside in Colorado.

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