Want your kids to be happier kids? More important, want your children to grow up to be happier and more satisfied for the rest of their lives?
A study from University College London found that people who perceived their parents as less psychologically controlling and more caring as they were growing up were likely to be happier and more satisfied as adults.
On the flip side, the people whose parents applied greater psychological control as they were growing up exhibited significantly lower mental well-being throughout their adult lives; in fact, the effect was judged to be similar to the recent death of a close friend or relative.
According to Mai Stafford, the lead author of the study:
"We found that people whose parents showed warmth and responsiveness had higher life satisfaction and better mental wellbeing throughout early, middle and late adulthood. By contrast, psychological control was significantly associated with lower life satisfaction and mental wellbeing. Examples of psychological control include not allowing children to make their own decisions, invading their privacy and fostering dependence."
Psychological control differs from behavioral control. Behavioral control includes things like setting curfews, assigning chores, and expecting homework to be completed.
Behavioral control was determined when respondents disagreed with statements like "Gave me as much freedom as I wanted" and "Let me go out as often as I wanted." While that might sound psychologically controlling, it's not. Those parents set limits on certain types of behaviors -- but not on feelings.
Psychological control involves not letting kids make some of their own decisions, not allowing privacy, and encouraging feelings of dependence.
Psychological control was determined when respondents agreed with statements like "Tried to control everything I did" and "Tried to make me feel dependent on her/him."
If the difference still seems fuzzy, here's an explanation from Nancy Darling:
- Behavioral control refers to the extent to which parents ask kids to constrain their behavior to meet the needs of others. Strictness is one way to think about it, but I think it is better conceptualized as the parents' expectation that the child conform to high standards--especially when it's difficult. It also captures the extent to which parents follow through on rules they set.
- Psychological control is the extent to which parents try to control the child's emotional state or beliefs. For example, they may use guilt induction or make the child feel that they won't be loved if they don't do what parents want. The core of psychological control is that it assaults the child's self.
"We know from other studies," says Stafford, "that if a child shares a secure emotional attachment with their parents, they are better able to form secure attachments in adult life. Parents also give us a stable base from which to explore the world, while warmth and responsiveness has been shown to promote social and emotional development. By contrast, psychological control can limit a child's independence and leave them less able to regulate their own behavior."
What can you do to show that you care? What can you do to maintain some degree of behavioral control without straying into the psychological control zone?
In the study, "caring" was measured by agreement with statements like "Appeared to understand my problems and worries" and "Was affectionate to me."
That should be easy.
Then feel free to set limits you feel are appropriate. Feel free to have expectations. But then go one step farther: Talk about why you set those limits and why you have those expectations. Then allow your kids to talk, and make sure you listen. You may be able to control certain behaviors, but you can't control every opinion -- so don't try. Show that even though you might disagree, you still respect their right to see things differently. Showing respect is a great way to show you care.
And make sure you let your kids make as many of their own decisions as you can. The best way to learn to make smart choices -- and to take responsibility for our actions -- is to start early.
After all, your ultimate goal is to raise them to be successful and independent adults -- because that's a great recipe for happiness and satisfaction.