“Control Freak Moms, Lay Down Your Cell Phones!” (And Let Your Kids Deal with Natural Consequences)

Posted July 10, 2009 by

I have often mused that if there was a recovery group for control freaks, I would be its fearless leader. “Hi, I’m Kathy, and I’m a control freak.”

National, International or Galactic, I could lead them all.  Because I was in charge of the world — or at least the small cosmos of my family — micro-managing down to the most minute detail.

Until that bubble burst and I realized I could control nothing other than myself, my own decisions and my own reactions. That day a new world opened up for me, although I readily admit that every so often I slip through a trap door to that former place.

It was our son’s substance abuse and the realization that I couldn’t fix it or “make him stop” that did it. I realized I could only control my own reactions– which I have learned is most effective when the approach of getting out of the way and allowing natural consequences to take place is also followed.

Of course, it’s always easier to see this in someone else’s situation rather than one’s own, but the recognition of it in others is also a help in implementing the lessons I learned.

Not too long ago one of the dramas of a control freak mother playing victim unfolded right before my very eyes. It could have been me not all that long ago…

I could so identify.

“Jeannie” arrived at the health care facility where I was working after dropping her younger son off at basketball camp. Her older daughter was babysitting and took her kindergarten-aged sister with her, and that left only her oldest son, a junior in high school, asleep at home.

Just before eleven Jeannie frantically started trying to reach her son to make sure he was awake. She had enrolled him in a college level math class because she felt the teacher at his former school hadn’t done a good job teaching. He hadn’t gotten a good grade and didn’t understand the math, but it was absolutely the teacher’s fault.

“Doesn’t he have an alarm clock?” I casually asked.

“Yes, but he might not hear it, so I’ll just call him to make sure he’s up.”

I had been there, done that — and learned that it only led to massive anxiety and headaches on my part.

When more than a dozen phone calls had been unsuccessful in determining whether her son had left the house or not (“Hopefully he’s up, maybe there isn’t reception; he has to go to class…there’s a test today…”) she finally called the neighbor to see if his car was still in the driveway— which would answer the question about whether he had left for class or was still asleep.

“He was up till five this morning, I had a feeling he might oversleep,” came the next statement.

“Why was he up so late?” I questioned.

“He was doing his homework, but he didn’t start till eleven, but he’s on steroids for his asthma, so he has a hard time sleeping.

What my recovering control freak ears heard were multiple rationalizations and excuses for his lack of responsibility, which were confirmed when she started fuming to herself that he had no difficulty getting up for football practice.

When her neighbor called back to confirm that his car was still in the driveway, she feverishly went to work to decide how to wake him up from her remote location at work (where productivity was way down). Calls to her daughter and husband followed, in which blaming words started to fly.

Her daughter wouldn’t go to the house to bang on the door, and her husband blamed her for not being personally present to haul her son’s self-induced weary body out of bed. More arguing with her husband followed, and the blame game continued.

She finally reached her son, who refused to go to class because he was already late.

“What will his consequence be for missing class? I asked.

“Consequence?” she asked pausing before responding that she had half a mind to not let him play in his ball game that evening, but her husband wouldn’t agree, so in all likelihood there wouldn’t be a consequence.

“He has to take and pass this class,” she offered as I simply continued to listen.

“Why is that, and by the way, who’s idea was it for him to take the class?” I answered.

“Well, he’s changing schools next year, and because the teacher did such a lousy job of teaching math this year I decided he really needed to take this class so he wouldn’t flunk out of math at the new school next year.” She added, almost as an afterthought, “Oh, it was my idea, he wasn’t too happy about it.”

It turns out they had bought a house in a neighboring town so he could enroll in that school district tuition-free to play on a more competitive football team. It appeared that setting him up in his third school in as many years so he could play ball on a winning team was the primary motivation.

But her oldest son wasn’t the only one calling the shots and getting his way in the family.

Conversation revealed that her youngest daughter has an upcoming appointment with the Pediatric Dentist because she doesn’t brush her teeth.

“What do you mean she doesn’t brush her teeth?” I questioned.

“Well you know, things unravel by the fourth child, she keeps eating after dinner and I just can’t make her brush her teeth.”

“Nicole is my fourth child, and she brushes her teeth twice a day,” I noted.

“Well, she just doesn’t listen to me,” Jeannie sighed.

I remained silent and thought about how I could encourage my friend to shift the balance of power, responsibility and entitlement in her family. Or things would only go from bad to worse…trust me, I know.

But perhaps most valuable was the lesson it held for me; a lesson of how slippery the slope back to micromanagement and control freak mode is for those of us who are wired that way and love the illusion of the perfect family—and get really uncomfortable with the embarrassment our kids might cause us.

There are natural consequences to all decisions, and sometimes they are really hard. But our kid’s behavior will change as parents consistently parent and don’t abdicate those roles in favor of excuses and a life on easy street for their kids.

It was a valuable reminder to me to hold firm, love and allow natural consequences to take their course while managing my own behavior.

Have you had similar epiphanies? When have you had to let go — and what happened?

About

Kathy has four children, aged 9, 12, 24 and 26. Her second son was seduced by marijuana when he was 16. Kathy is now a published author of "Winning the Drug War at Home". She is also a childbirth educator and is writing a pregnancy and childbirth book. Kathy graduated from Brown University with a degree in Health and Society, and also has a BSN in Nursing.

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  1. Marie (Edit) Report

    It is really helpful to read this and hear other people’s stories and struggles with being a control freak. I have felt very alone in coming to terms with how damaging being a controlling person is to others in my family. My son is 23, recovering from drug addiction and about to go to court for a felony conviction. My heart is broken every day for him and I want to fix everything and “make” him change but I can’t. Learning that control is an illusion is the hardest thing I have ever done. I feel a lot of guilt – that I am the reason he is failing so badly, that I am the reason he turned to drugs, etc. Now I worry I have messed up my two younger children because of my behaviors. The guilt is overwhelming. I wish I could really learn to stop this desire to control for good. Its really hard to change a pattern at age 50, but I am trying. Do any of you feel so sad about how you act and guilty?

    Reply
  2. Kathy Pride (Edit) Report

    Hi KanKare2Much, and all,

    First, I love it when the conversation continues. Great stuff, and yes, isn’t it fabuloso to know you are not alone? Along with that river you no longer need to feel like you are drowning in in Egypt, you don’t have to wander around the desert there either! Or at least certainly not for 40 years!

    Freedom comes in allowing our kids to make their mistakes, cheering them on (different from enabling) encouraging and loving always. I know, I know…I don’t always like my kids on a given day, but unconditional love is important. That doesn’t translate into buying or doing. Simply loving.

    I welcome all to join me in our personal chapter of control freak moms anonymous!

    Feel free to visit me at http://www.kathypride.com, updates are currently underway, expect a new look soon!

    Hope to hear from you, Kathy

    Reply
  3. kankare2much (Edit) Report

    I am so glad that I have a support system for ??”control freaks”
    ?? is for what I have been told ” . . .YOu are a control freak. . .”
    I guess I am and you have another member of your group. It is so __________ ; [I can not think of a single word to express the frustration and futility (no dictionary–excuse miss spelling) ] when circumstantces arise and I have been stripped of the ability to assist and /or allowed to be involved in the care of my child.
    Because of my current situation I was feeling alone in my current “control freak” withdrawal. After reading your Blog message, perhaps I can now feel that I have some others who are in this same place. Perhaps now I will not feel like I am near drowning in a river in Egypt.
    Look forward to comments.

    Reply
  4. 3 mum (Edit) Report

    i totally understand what you are all dealing with. we recently found out that our 19 year old daughter is in a same sex relationship . we are devastated. the girl that she is involved with has not graduated high school, does not work, or even have her driver’s licence.

    our daughter, on the other hand, is intelligent, creative, talented and an all around sweet , kind soul. she is currently in her second year of college, and is doing very well. she also has had a part-time job for the last 2 years.

    the problem is, other than she is a lesbian, that she lies to us about where she is and who she is with. we allow to see her ‘ friend’ once a week only, however we feel that she spends more time with this person than we know about.

    she also told us last night that she wants to move in with her ‘ friend’ in the spring. when we asked her how she was going to be able to afford to do this, she said that she would work and try to get a job somewhere..most likely not in her career path.

    we want her to stay at home, finish college, and support her while she starts to make a living, then move out when she has a bit of money, if that is what she still wants to do.

    anyone else out there dealing with a gay child?

    Reply
  5. Kathy Pride (Edit) Report

    Hi Deerhead,

    The bottom line is, as much as you would like to be able to get your son to get it, there is nothing you can do to force or cajole him to understand the consequences of his choices and behavior unless he experiences them himself. Let him know you love him, but won’t rescue or shield him and allow him to learn how to figure things out for himself. I feel for you…but it gets easier.

    Reply
  6. deerhead (Edit) Report

    I feel like a control freak. I worry about the choices my 18 year old son makes. He quit school last year, was arrested for a MIP, went through severe depression. I worry about him when he is home and when he isn’t. Recently he hasn’t finished his community service and now he is looking at jail time. He has to get his case reviewed. He is going to our local alternative high school this fall and I worry that he won’t get up in the morning and go to school. What do you do as a parent to get them to get it. He ask that I trust him but I feel like he gives me reason not to! Any suggestions???

    Reply
  7. Kathy Pride (Edit) Report

    I am so sorry for what you are going through.

    For one, I think you are correct. Your husband should not be cleaning up after her and I think the consequence of losing the car is sensible. You both can’t protect her from her decisions and she may lose friends. Only when she feels the consequences of her behavior is there a chance it will change. That’s my two cents…

    Reply
  8. Ann Marie (Edit) Report

    My daughter began bulimia and anorexia at age 15. Maybe sooner, we didn’t know about it until then. She blamed me saying that I did not help her lose weight. She only needed to lose about 10 pounds. I did tell her at age 12 to make good food choices and exercise. She loved to sit around and eat junk food, mostly candy. I admit that I am not a sports person and love to eat. I have joined OA and now in Weight watchers and walk dogs to earn a living. I asked her to join me walking but she got bored very quickly. When my husband and I had evidence of her throwing up, I just cried and cried and believed her that I had done this to her. Instead she was probably going on the websites that promote this behavior among young women. they make friends and chat on line. then I found out that a very good friend of hers who looked good and attracted a lot of boys was bulimic. The blame game began…….finally I gave up and knew that when she was sick enough she would stop. I did not enable her and even took the plungers out of the bathroom. She had to clean up if she made a mess. Well, now she is a normal weight and I will never know if she throws up when we can’t see her, but I do know that it is her problem. It makes me sad and the media does not help. She ran away from the counseling offices and out into the parking lot. I went to counseling on my own to learn to stop following her around and make her stop. It worked. She turned 18 this week, on Friday. We caught her redhanded, drop dead drunk on June 30th, however she had given someone her car keys to drive home. She said she was at a friend’s house so I asked the mom if she had been there and do they have a liquor cabinet. No , to both questions. I figured out which friend gave her the stuff, but still debating should I call this mom or not. When my daughter begins to lose friends from the lying that she was at their homes, and was not, then that is a natural consequence. I wanted her grounded without the car until August 31st but my husband said no. I told her she cannot come home drunk or she must leave. What about this, anyone? I hope I did enough. She is old enough to know what she has done wrong. I hate the girl who gave her the stuff but at least she gave her a ride home. My husband also washed sheets and cleaned up her room from vomit. I am so mad at him, I wanted her to do it. He is an enabler, I think. But he is the one who said her friends will drop her if she keeps lying on them as an excuse. Please let me know what you think

    Reply
  9. kathy pride (Edit) Report

    Thanks for your comments.

    How does one relingquish control? It is HARD. The things that have made a difference to me in this journey, and it is a journey, not a weekedn getaway…no quick fix here, is to bite my lip, count to ten before speaking, go to counseling, pray and attend and read al anon literature. It is a process that sometimes is moment by moment, leaving me dangling over what feels and looks like a huge bottomless pit.
    It is loving undonditionally but being firm in putting one’s foot down on rules. But there is a fine line between loving and enabling. Be still. Listen. To your teen for their underlying issues, for the voice of the Higher Power (coining an AA phrase) and proceed carefully. Say little, listen much and somehow work to keep your own anger and frustration at bay. The only one you can control is yourself.

    Peace.

    Reply
  10. Kemuel Ronis (Edit) Report

    Kathy, I enjoyed your article! The biggest point that I agree with is about letting your children experience natural consequences. I know that in my own life my most important lessons have come from these events. Like all things, there is a balance and timeframe for shielding ones children and letting them grow up. Far too often parents today try to make everything all right and metaphorically clean up their children’s messes for far too long.

    Reply
  11. cheri (Edit) Report

    Ok…I’m hearing all of these that are resounding with me until you all get to the point where you say you let go of the control. HOW DO YOU DO THAT?? My daughter is teetering on some very destructive behavior and I don’t know how to let it all go. Do I give her complete freedom to make her own choices/mistakes or do I still enforce family rules and insist that she abide by them (which isn’t working). I’m just having trouble giving her freedom when I know she’s going to abuse it. it feels like I’m condoning her bad behavior if I allow it. Help!!!

    Reply
  12. jennablon (Edit) Report

    Thank you for this article – this is a perfect reminder for me, as I too have been on the roller coaster of being a control freak – and my son’s addiction was the breaking point. For so long I tried to make everything right – make him do everything right – accept blame for things I had nothing to do with – addiction is a quick lesson in the fact you do not control the universe, no matter how bad you want to sometimes. He is now in rehab #4 and I am starting to find my life again – sleep at night – smile again. It’s been a long and painful journey, but there is hope – not just for him but for me. If you’re dealing with this, hang in there – things can change for the better.

    Reply

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