Feeling in control is essential for adolescent development. Teens and tweens are reforming boundaries and expectations as they prepare for adulthood, and increasing autonomy helps them thrive. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and families alike have made enormous changes to their structures and routines. Adults are managing big emotions from uncertain kids without the confidence of having “been there.” We are all building the plane as we fly.
For teens and tweens, this loss of control feels even more intense. They may be dealing with the same upheavals as adults, but without the mature emotional regulation to help them cope. These feelings of powerlessness can manifest in different ways; some kids will express their anxiety verbally, while others may become defiant or engage in power struggles to regain a sense of control.
It may not be possible to change difficult circumstances, but you can change the strategies you and your kids use to manage them. Here are three tips for restoring a sense of control for kids, even when their world feels out of control.
Cultivate a Healthy Control Mindset
First, begin with mindset, and help your children cultivate an internal locus of control. If you have an internal locus of control, you believe your actions have a direct result on what happens to you, for better or worse. By contrast, if you have an external locus of control, you believe fate, luck, or other people primarily determine what happens to you.
Adolescents with an internal locus of control can weather more uncertainty than their externally-oriented peers. They know that even if life changes dramatically, they can make choices that will affect their lives for the better. For example, a teen with an internal locus of control might know that even if basketball season gets canceled this year, she can choose to train during her time off and return even stronger next year.
Children who cultivate an internal locus of control still don’t like adversity, but they take mental charge of it. In response to a poor test grade, their attitude is, “I’ll have to study more next time.” After a conflict with a friend, they ask, “How could I have handled this differently?” They are more resilient in academic, athletic, and social situations than peers who tended to blame others for setbacks.
You can foster an internal locus of control in your teen or tween by helping them link actions to outcomes. Have them brainstorm a few past achievements. Then, list the steps they took to earn them. Finish by asking them to write a summary statement beginning with the phrase “I earned.” For example: “I earned the ‘Most Improved’ Award because I changed my study habits.”
If they respond well, you can talk through the same process with a recent negative outcome. What steps did they take to arrive at a low math grade? Or to sit on the bench the whole game? Keep your tone neutral, but drive home the point that their choices affect their results, both good and bad. Discuss some changes they can make next time to achieve a better outcome.
Identify What Children Can Control
To help them cope with overwhelming situations as they arise, guide your teen or tween to make a habit of recognizing what they can control. Nothing is too small to consider. For example, they are likely able to make choices about their diet, sleep, screen use, and outdoor time, but they may take those for granted. Help them take inventory of all of the freedom they exercise on a daily basis. Much like practicing gratitude, simply listing what they can control can set in motion a significant shift in their thinking.
Now get more specific and choose a situation in which your teen or tween feels powerless. Encourage them to brainstorm what choices they do have, no matter how small. If they are feeling overwhelmed by their remote learning work, can they at least choose where they sit to complete it? Can they choose to play calming music in the background, or to arrange the space around them to clear their mind? Can they choose to email a friend or teacher for help?
If real-life situations are a sensitive subject, try discussing a similar scenario on a movie or TV show you have seen together. Even if it is not a perfect analogy, your goal is to get the conversation started. Be sure to share an example of a time when you also felt powerless. Teens and tweens already understand their parents aren’t superhumans, so don’t pressure yourself to appear perfect or to know all the answers. They will appreciate your honesty over your (lack of) superpowers.
And remember that in every situation, it is likely that circumstances, luck, and the actions of others play some part. Your teen or tween may argue, for example, that a bad grade on a test was partially due to their teacher being absent the day before, or to an interruption from a fire drill. Both could be valid reasons for lower performance.
In such cases, be compassionate and acknowledge that there are always factors outside of our control. Even the most successful people are regularly dealt obstacles. Remind your teen or tween that what separates successful people from others is that they focus on what they can control.
Create More Opportunities for Control
Third and finally, be intentional about building more opportunities for control into your teen or tween’s life. Parents are still in charge, but you can foster autonomy and healthy feelings of control by offering him reasonable choices whenever possible.
Perhaps your middle schooler could help plan the dinner menu for the week by choosing from a list you create. If you do family movie nights, they could choose the movie or the snacks, alternating with siblings if they have them. Some structure around school work is important, but can they choose from two different times to complete homework, or from two different schedules for remote learning? In either case, they could decide in which order they would like to tackle their subjects. Other simple choices might be the arrangement of furniture in their room or the music you listen to in the car. No opportunity is too small to help them create a sense of agency over their life. (Keep in mind that as you plan to create more choices for your adolescent, a good rule of thumb is to make sure all available options are also agreeable to you!)
You may be able to harness your teen or tween’s individual interests into meaningful choice as well. Are they passionate about the environment? Help them make an online shopping list for the household consumables, like paper towels and hand soap, that meet their standards for sustainable packaging. Maybe they’re a self-taught dog expert. Put them in charge of making the daily schedule for the family dog.
A healthy attitude toward control requires ongoing work and reflection, but these three tips can lay the foundation for your teen or tween’s lasting success. Although living through COVID feels uniquely unpredictable, remember that sudden changes will always be part of life. Your kids will have their sense of control challenged again, and they will be better equipped to handle it because of the tools you give them today. Take this opportunity to teach them resilience and strength.
About the Author
Lisa Swander Sarjeant is a National Board Certified Teacher with 14 years of experience in middle and high school classrooms. She is a licensed high ability educator and a former high school speech and debate coach.