Why Warm, Less Controlling Parents Raise Happier Kids

Parenting is a balancing act, that’s for sure. Just when I think I have it all figured out, something crops up and I need to step back and reevaluate. My daughter is a dancer. She loves her classes, she loves competing and she feels confident when she’s on the stage. It came as no surprise when she decided to hang up her soccer cleats this season to focus on dance. What did come as a surprise was that she started stepping back from dance, as well.

I’m an under-scheduler by nature. A big believer in the power of play, I prefer to allow plenty of free time for my kids to get lost in play and explore their interests. They do some structured activities, but only if they make that choice. I don’t force them to play certain sports and I certainly don’t bribe them to engage in group sports. They have their passions, and they know that it’s perfectly acceptable for passion to shift.

Still, the dance thing caught me off guard. As much as she loves the dancing part of dance, it’s the friendships she’s made there that really stand out. She feels like she’s part of something and she knows those kids will always be there for her. That, more than anything, seemed reason enough to continue. 

So we talked. I believe in open communication between parents and children. Kids need to be able to express their thoughts and emotions, even if parents don’t agree. They need unconditional love and support to thrive during the ups and downs of childhood. And that begins with honest conversations.

As it turns out, she felt pressured about an upcoming competition. She felt like it was too big — too much too soon for her. She didn’t want to disappoint her teacher, so she quietly backed away. After a long chat about the benefits of dance with or without the competition, the smile returned to her face. The dance also returned to her step. She couldn’t wait to go back. She won’t do that big competition this year, but she will return to her happy place and dance to her heart’s content.

If we want to raise happy kids, we have to provide warmth, comfort, and unconditional love. 

A new lifelong study from University College London (UCL), published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, found that while children of warm, less controlling adults who were responsive to their needs went on to form secure attachments in adulthood and feel content in life, the opposite was true for children of overly controlling parents. Adult children of controlling parents scored lower on happiness and general well-being scales.

The study tracked more than 5,000 people since their birth in 1946 and is the first study to measure the long term effects of different parenting styles. 

What does it mean to exert psychological control over a child? 

Limiting a child’s independence, not allowing children to make any decisions, fostering dependence by doing everything for the child (you know, to do it “right”), refusing to allow children to have some privacy (it’s okay to have a secret journal, I promise), and never letting them have their way are all examples of too much control on the part of the parent.

There are huge benefits to stepping back and giving up some of that parental control. When parents slow down and stop planning for the perfect future, they are better able to focus on the parent-child relationship in the moment. In short, when you reduce parental control you strengthen your bond with your child and empower your child to live a happy life.

Check out these three benefits to giving up some control.

1.  Kids develop emotional regulation skills. When parents are fixers, kids don’t learn how to fend for themselves. Sure, you have life experience on your side and you know that some problems really do have a quick fix. When you run in for the save, however, you rob your child of the opportunity to work on problem solving skills and emotional regulation. Instead, provide warmth, empathy and hugs in response to big feelings, so that your child learns that seeking comfort under stress is a great coping strategy. 

2. They form secure emotional bonds. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a relationship with a highly controlling person in any capacity, but it is very difficult to bond with someone who always tells you what to do and when to do it. No one likes taking orders every second of every day. It’s very difficult to express your emotions, dreams, and thoughts to someone who has an answer or a story for everything. When parents listen to their children and provide warmth and understanding without trying to control everything, however, kids feel emotionally connected to their parents. They build trust. They feel understood. They know that they have a touchstone in their lives. That’s a very powerful feeling. It also helps them learn to develop secure attachments with others as they grow.

3. They are more competent. When kids have the opportunity to make decisions and follow through with their ideas, they gain confidence. They also become more confident. They might not get everything right on the first try, but they learn to persevere, work through problems, and keep trying. This enables them to cope with things like stress and failure. Giving kids the opportunity to fail, as it turns out, leads them to future success. When parents control everything, on the other hand, kids are more likely to experience anxiety, have difficulty coping with stress, and appear less competent. 

It can be hard to step back and watch kids struggle when you know that you can fix it for them. I know that feeling. I’ve been there. But giving kids the power of choice and trusting them to make good decisions empowers them to live happy and productive lives. The parent-child relationship is everything to a small child. How we choose to parent our children today can have a lasting impact on how they live their lives later. Make it a positive relationship by reducing the need for control and focusing on support and empathy instead.

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