One of the great benefits of my daughter Bri relocating to New York from L.A. is that I occasionally get to dine with her while we watch television. She controls the remote.
Back in the day, I frequently watched her shows with her and, besides this being fun, I always found the “show” to be a great stimulus to discuss life issues that she was experiencing or would inevitably have to confront, as well as helping me tune in to the same situations. You might say that we were tutored by television.
Such was the case a Monday ago. Those who know my daughter know these two points: first, the dinner was healthy — salad, salmon, steamed vegetables; and second, we were not going to watch Monday Night Football.
After appetizing up with the new “90210″ (the difference between this one and the old one being that I can now talk during the show; during the reign of the original, my daughter restricted my comments to commercial time), we were ready for our main course and the feature presentation: “Gossip Girl.”
Under the same conditions, I had seen the show the previous week and with Bri’s notes, I was up to par. Suffice it to say that I cannot explain it to you, but the show — and I say this as a psychologist — is worthy of viewing because it takes dysfunction to a new level.
The only plot points you need to know are that malicious friends — including her step-sister — have it in for Serena, and her parents blame her for all the mishaps, when in fact she is innocent and her friends are the culprits.
As the night’s episode reached its climax, Serena’s parents, Lily and Rufus, confront each other with what they consider to be a parental deficiency: “We can’t control our own daughters.” In reality, trying to control your kids is the real parental deficiency and is a root cause of parent-child conflicts at all ages.
Immediately I turned down the volume for our dialogue. “Bri, do you think I try to control you?” I asked.
“Of course not. Now put on ‘The Fashion Show,’ please,” was her instructional response. I didn’t mind; I was pleased that my daughter did not perceive me as one of those “controlling parents.” If you are a parent, I hope your kids can say the same.
Issues of control are inherent in all parent-child relationships. Unfortunately, not enough parents (at least in this psychologist’s opinion), handle the gauntlet effectively, thus giving birth to the all familiar power struggles, taxing to even the most resilient parent and child.
Parent-child power struggles come at all ages. Sometimes, it’s about the clothes to wear, when to go to bed, who to be friends with or not, who to date, where to go to college, what job to take, and where to live. Whatever the problem may be, the common denominator is the parent trying to impose his or her will upon the child. As TV imitates life, Serena’s parents are distraught because they cannot get their daughter to do what they want her to do, even though their wishes are not in their daughter’s best interest.
Why do parents try to control their kids? You can count on the fact that psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have been generous in giving their explanations, and every parent has their own explanations, too — all valid.
Here are three that seem to fuel “controlling parents” and inevitably create disturbances in parent-child relationships:
- Forced expectations. All parents have expectations of their children, but controlling parents overtly pressure their children to meet their specific expectations: “You are going to become a doctor” becomes more important to the parent than, “You will do what you like.” Many times, forced expectations represent the parent’s unfulfilled dreams. In this scenario, the parent is constantly trying to force the child to do things that make the parent feel good/proud, regardless of the stress it inflicts on their child.
Advice: Start to clarify your parental expectations and your motive for having them. Be aware of how your parental expectations influence your relationship with your child, and how your parents’ expectations influenced your relationship with them.
- The desire to do right. All parents want their children to do the right thing, but for controlling parents, doing the right thing means, “Do what I want you to do.” In essence, the controlling parents rob the child of the opportunity to develop their own judgment and decision-making skills.
Advice: Remember that what is right for you may be wrong for your child. Help your child clarify their values, and develop problem-solving skills so that they can choose what is right for them.
- Fear of abandonment. Parents are in the paradoxical position of preparing someone they love to leave them. Losing a loved one is apt to create anxieties, in this case often stemming from the parent’s thoughts and feelings that they will be abandoned when their children are grown.
Controlling parents diminish these feelings by manipulating their children to be dependent on them, thus keeping them in the “role” of a child. Parents often accomplish this by sabotaging their child’s autonomy and undermining their confidence. Tactics vary from the message, “You can’t do it; I will have to do it for you” (which can be subtle or explicit) to creating financial dependency.
Advice: Be a good listener, honor their feelings, show them your love every day and be supportive, and you will never have to worry about their abandoning you.
“Gossip Girl,” you can help a lot of parents, especially Lily and Rufus, if you spread this message: Trust your kid to succeed. That is no gossip!
P.S.: I regained control of the television after “The Fashion Show.”