I can be a complete control freak when it comes to parenting my daughter. Not a pretty thing to admit — and even uglier in action — it’s what happens when I’m under stress. In this state “controlling” is my default mode, an unconscious state where my behaviors are automatic and never lead to where I truly want my interactions with my daughter to go. I’m not alone in my predicament. Whether you’re a Cora Controller, Dan Denier, Barbara Blamer, or Ed Escaper, you too have a habitual reaction that creates undesired results in your family.

Why habitual reactions harm our relationships

Habits are actions we take without consciously thinking about what we’re actually doing. While they’re useful for many of our daily activities (e.g., driving, cleaning house, personal hygiene, etc.), their unconscious, and automatic nature can lead to negative effects (e.g., weight gain from mindless eating for comfort, alcoholism from habitual drinking, etc.). In our relationships, we usually revert to our habits when under stress. And this is what I’m specifically referring to — a habit that you’ve had (likely since childhood) that you drop into when your relationship with your child (or spouse) is producing stress. If you’ve worked diligently to develop new helpful habits to replace old behaviors, bravo (e.g., Instead of yelling or threatening, you use deep breathing to calm yourself before speaking to your child.). This is a new habit, but it’s not the one I refer to here.

“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit — unless you find new routines — the pattern will unfold automatically.”

~ Charles Duhigg

Here are examples from my own family. First, here’s a picture of one of my habitual reactions:

In Apologies aren’t enough (from parents), I wrote about how I had “swiftly marched to the living room and roughly yanked the socks off” both of my daughter’s feet after she had used them to rub butter into the floor I had recently mopped. I was angry — furious, really — because of the story I was telling myself about my daughter’s actions. Not having successfully caught myself in my mounting stress and emotional turmoil, I reacted at lightning-speed in my “old” way of taking control and behaving with complete lack of compassion. The results — for me and my daughter — were absolutely the opposite of my deepest desires. Acting from a place of habit, I harmed one of the most sacred relationships I have.

Here is an example of where I was successful in keeping myself from falling back into that unhelpful control-freak habit.

With the “spring forward” time change, my daughter was waking just 30-minutes prior to school start time, rather than her normal 90-minutes prior. For me, her time at school is incredibly valuable as it’s a primary source of time for my writing, money-earning, doing certain errands and housework, as well as taking care of my own well-being. Besides her “late” waking, she was sitting on the couch instead of doing the things to get ready for school such as going to the bathroom, getting dressed, and putting her backpack at the door. Internally I was feeling twinges of impatience and frustration, and that familiar voice was admonishing me to “get things moving.” This time instead of slipping into drill sergeant mode, I got playful. I first sang my own rendition of the Beatles “Help,” in hopes of enticing her to be my helper. It didn’t work — but it also didn’t create even more tension. So I made a second effort a few minutes later as she finished eating her breakfast. I playfully said, “Hey, can you dance into your clothes?” and began humming a tune. She quickly joined in the humming and began unzipping her pajamas. In less than two minutes she was completely dressed and in a playful mood, and I felt lighter too. We brushed her teeth as she danced on the couch and then she raced her dad to get their shoes and coats on to head out the door. I barely had time for our goodbye ritual before she waltzed out to the car.

Same old, same old or a new way for a new day?

Same old, same old or a new way for a new day?

When I compare the two scenarios above, here’s what I notice:

  • My habitual reaction is “easy” because it requires no thinking on my part, but that’s the sole benefit it confers. Alongside this meager blessing are numerous curses: I create division with my beloved child; I harm my own self-esteem once I “come to” my senses afterwards and realize how I’ve (mis)behaved; I further reinforce a habit that I truly want to release into my past; I teach my daughter that she’s only loveable when she’s doing as I want her to do; I model for my daughter a way of behaving under stress that’s ineffective and certainly not what I actually want her repeating for herself.
  • My non-habitual response takes more time, more self-awareness, more self-control, and more creativity. While it’s not automatic like the habitual reaction, that’s the only downside I found to choosing consciousness. Being thoughtful and intentional brought numerous blessings: I felt lighter and more free; my daughter had nothing to react against so her stress level didn’t increase; I didn’t build up any regrets; we had fun and laughter at the start of our day; we got out the door faster than if I’d played the dictator (I base this on my past experience.).

You too can create greater family harmony

None of us need be prisoners of our past. Just because we once learned a way to cope with stress, doesn’t mean it’s still of value. If you find yourself “behaving badly” in times of tension, you can choose a new way out.

“A Native American elder once described his own inner struggles in this manner: ‘Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time.’ When asked which dog wins he reflected for a moment and replied, ‘The one I feed the most.'”

~ Unknown