Why is He SOOO Controlling?!
So far, I’ve tackled food issues and lying as two of the top issues the pull momma’s into the trauma tornado. Most of our kids have food issues, most of them struggle with lying…and most of them are extremely controlling. I can only think of one behavior that is harder for mommas…and that’s manipulation. I’ll address manipulation a different day, promise! Just like I did with both food issues and lying, we will first figure out how controlling behavior fits in the trauma tornado, and then we will identify the four super powers that trauma mommas need when parenting a child of trauma and dealing with controlling behavior.
How does controlling behavior fit into the trauma tornado?
If you’ve been reading my blog for a few months, you’re getting good at identifying the negative belief that is underneath your child’s behavior. Sometimes it is tricky to figure out exactly what that negative belief is. But controlling behavior? That one is easy! Controlling behavior is always driven by the negative belief that it is NOT safe to not be in control.
Remember Erik Erikson?
Well if you aren’t a psychology junkie, you probably don’t. Erik Erikson has been one of my favorite psychologists since high school. Never mind Freud- I’ve always loved Erikson’s theory on psychosocial development. Erikson says that during the first year of an infant’s life, their primary developmental task is to solve the psychosocial conflict of trust versus mistrust. A successful outcome to year #1 means that the infant now has trust. Trust in others “People who are bigger than me will make sure I’m OK. They will feed me, love me, and they certainly won’t scare me.” Trust in himself “Hey, I’m a great baby!” An infant who does not develop trust (due to relinquishment, abuse, neglect, misattunement, etc.) becomes that child who is controlling. They don’t trust others to do what needs to be done, and develops the belief that they’ve got to be in control if they are going to stay safe. This becomes an implicit memory developed through repeated experiences that teaches the infant that the adult cannot be trusted.
The Scared Child Looks Scary
The scared child believes “I must in control! It is not safe for me to not be in control!” and then looks scary to the adult (controlling behavior). The scared parent- scared of losing control in their family- may believe something like “Oh no you don’t! I’m in charge!” or “I cannot let a six-year-old run the show!” It feels bad to be controlled. It feels exceptionally bad to be controlled by your child! The scared parent behaves in much the same way as the scared child…by digging in their heels and being in control. “I will not tell you again!” or “If you don’t do what I say, there will be a consequence!” The tornado ensues because the scared parent now looks scary to the child, who in turn feels scared and behaves….well….in a more controlling way.
Remember your Super Powers
- Understand how Trauma Impacts the Brain. Last time, I suggested you enjoy the leisurely reading of “The Polyvagal Theory” by Porges. I’m sure you dove right in! When you’re done, you can dive into the Theory of Relativity or something else as easy to digest and comprehend. To summarize: Trauma puts a child’s nervous system into overdrive. More reactive and more likely to fall into fight/flight/freeze. The controlling child is a dysregulated and reactive child. If they can stay ‘in charge’ they stay at the top of the proverbial food chain, less likely to be hurt and more likely to get out of a bad situation if necessary. Remember…that this step doesn’t have to be rehashed over and over again. Once you understand how trauma impacts the brain, you can apply that in all situations.
- Understand how your child’s specific trauma impacted their specific brain. Did your child experience chronic neglect their first year of life? Has your child been in eight different foster placements- learning that adults come and go and frankly are just not to be trusted? Is your child’s nervous system always on the defense, with a hypervigilence that leads them to be in control? (As a side note, what is one of your go-to behaviors when you feel anxious and out-of-control? For most of us, it’s to control. And usually the thing we are controlling has nothing to do with what we are nervous about…but our own limbic brains have linked the two and we feel soothed by taking control of the situation. Think about it. It’s probably true for you too).
- How are you participating in the trauma tornado? Dr. Karyn Purvis talks a lot about how sharing control with a child is an excellent step toward building trust. Take a deep breath and take a step back. When is it OK to share control with your child? When is NOT OK to share control, but what you really need to do is help your child regulate, not fuel the fire with your own control? Lay a firm boundary that helps them know you are in charge (a message the children of trauma do need to believe…that the big people can keep them safe) while also focusing on the relationship, connection, and regulation. I’m thinking of a kiddo I have seen in my office who over time has slowly relinquished control of our sessions. How did that happen? We built relationship. I had firm boundaries. We shared power and control. I knew that if he was getting very controlling that he was getting very dysregulated. He needed a break. I needed to help him regulate. I learned the tricks to help this specific child regulate. What if I had just dug in my heels, refused to be controlled by him, demanded control and respect through force? I doubt we’d have even gotten to the trauma processing part of therapy- which also helped him decrease his need for control by processing the original trauma that led to his need to control in the first place. When you find yourself being trigged, slow down and jump OUT.
- Heal Thyself. Identifying where you are participating in the trauma tornado means you can soothe yourself and jump out of the tornado. Why is being controlled so triggering? What is so scary about sharing control with your child? Sharing control teaches trust and helps strengthen their pre-frontal cortex (thinking brain). It doesn’t circumvent your authority. Promise! The controlling child is hanging on by a thread. If you can soothe your own scared momma, you can help your child regulate.
And then do it again. And again.
Like all of our kiddo’s trauma based behaviors, this one takes a long time to begin to decrease. A really long time. Sometimes it’s impossible to jump out. Sometimes we are sick of being a trauma momma with super powers. We just want to be regular ole mommas. I know. I get it. We all have those days. Try again tomorrow.
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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.