“Without a healthy sense of control kids feel powerless and overwhelmed and will often become passive or resigned. When they are denied the ability to make meaningful choices, they are at high risk of becoming anxious, struggling to manage anger, becoming self destructive, or self medicating.” – William Stixrud/ Ned Johnson

There is a theory in psychology called ‘self-determination theory.’ Self-determination, the ability to make choices and manage our own lives, is crucial to psychological health and well-being. We become self-determined when our needs for competence, connection and autonomy are fulfilled. 

As peaceful parents, we know how important connection is. We also know how worthy and valuable it makes us or our children feel when we learn or master a new skill. That HUGE grin on your baby’s face when they take their first steps is proof of the importance of competence (the ability to do something successfully.)

What about autonomy? It’s that ‘healthy sense of control’ and the ‘ability to make meaningful choices’ that we need to give our children.

Little children can choose what to wear or what they’d like to eat for snack.

Older children might choose what to spend their allowance on, wacky hairstyles, or what extracurricular activities to pursue. 

Our teens and tweens might choose whether or not to clean their rooms, whom to date, or what to enroll in at school.

You may be nodding along right now. You might think, “Of course!” 

But what if you disagree? 

What if your preschooler doesn’t want to wear a coat and it’s cold out? 

What if your 8 year old wants to spend all their money on something frivolous? 

What if your teenager doesn’t care about good grades but is passionate about music instead?

Can you manage your anxiety and let them make their own choices? It’s challenging, for sure!

When we step in and make decisions for them or try to manage them, we are interfering with their autonomy and can cause them to ‘give up’ and be passive or resigned: “Why bother?” 

If we interfere they might doubt their judgement or desires and become anxious. 

Over time, limited sense of control or ability to make meaningful choices means that they don’t experience themselves as powerful and important and this can hurt their view of themselves. Low self-worth? It can lead to lashing out and self-destructive behaviour. 

Try this instead: If it’s not a health or safety issue, “I’ll leave that to you to decide” or “What do you think?” or “It’s up to you!”  (Arguably, we could make almost anything a health or safety issue. Is it TRULY? Or just what you think is the best idea?)

This trust in them and letting go of our agenda might be one of the most helpful things we can do for their development and psychological well-being.

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