Why My Job As A Parent Is Not To Control My Child’s Emotions.

As parents, we want the best for our children. Our hearts break when their’s break, our joy soars when theirs soar. When things fall apart, we do our best to fix it. But maybe we’re not supposed to be in control of every emotion they experience.

Mother Hugging Daughter Tenderly

“What your mom needs to remember is that she isn’t in control of your emotions.” The counselor was looking right at my daughter but I knew she was talking to me. We had just had a very emotional counseling session. My daughter was asked to list her stressors. I had known for a long time that I was the cause of some of her stress and truthfully I was relieved to see my name at the very bottom of a long and honest list. Watching my daughter make the list was a mixture of sadness, pride and sheer relief.

One week earlier my daughter and I were locked in a battle of wills. It started when I asked her to change her clothes before going out. From my perspective, it was a simple request. I wanted her to take off the pajama pants and put some real clothes on. I had asked 5 times before I began to feel building anxiety. I heard myself begin to escalate. With each new observation, my sense of urgency grew. I had to regain control. I realized that not only was she ignoring my request to get dressed, she also hadn’t moved from the couch. She hadn’t finished the chore I had asked her to do the night before and she had left a glass on top of the piano where the condensation had now formed a perfect ring. She never flinched as I began to express panic at the hopeless situation before me.

To an outsider, my catastrophic response to my daughter’s refusal may seem imbalanced but my fear went deeper than a desire to have an unblemished finish on the piano. I had known something was wrong for days, months even. I had tried all of my mom powers to battle the depression that lurked beneath every interaction with my daughter. The week leading up to the counseling appointment had been one of the worst in years. She had barely spoken to me in three days. If I tried asking her questions, “How are you doing today?” she would stare right through me. If I got angry and demanded answers, she would grab a book and hold it in front of her face pretending to read, moving eyes back and forth across the page. I was at a loss. The defiance of the past week was a symptom of a much larger issue. My husband and I had been walking through this difficult season with our daughter for a very long time.

For the past few years we have been on a roller coaster ride with our daughter. Each day, I wake up with the hope that this will be a good day. I observe cautiously, hoping to see a real smile. I listen until my ears ache with the longing to hear her laugh. My deepest desire is for my child to know her value, for her to know her worth. I yearn to see her fulfill her purpose in life. I long to see her use her talents with confidence. I desperately search her surroundings for a true friend. If only she had someone else beside her to tell her how great she is. Maybe she could see what I’ve seen since I first laid eyes on her. She is exactly who she is supposed to be.

Depression has all but consumed her. She’s still in there, I see her. I’ve spent the last few years trying to reach her. I cringe when she fails. I hurt when she hurts. I try to cushion the fall or to step in and catch her. I fill with rage when someone on the bus makes fun of her or when a teacher doesn’t stop to help her understand something. I want to scream in their faces, “Don’t you see what’s happening here? Don’t you know? You might be the very last person to insult her. You might be the very last person to break her heart. You might be the last person to see her alive.” Sometimes she thinks her life isn’t worth living, and that’s why I panicked about the pajamas a week ago. In my heart I’m afraid that if she doesn’t get dressed one morning that it will be because she doesn’t feel valuable enough to live this day.

So I panicked. I freaked out. I am the scream to her silence. I am the hyper-vigilant to her withdraw. I am the organizer to her chaos. I am the mom and I am making this worse.

Counseling was good this week. It was hard, but the good kind of hard. I’m beginning to realize that I cannot control my daughter’s emotions. I can’t ever work hard enough and long enough to control anything another person is doing or feeling. I can’t bubble wrap her. I can’t force her to have all healthy and joy filled interactions. That just isn’t reality. I’m so thankful for a counselor who wasn’t afraid to go deeper into our story and release me from the burden of being in control of my daughter’s emotions. I can finally stop trying to bubble wrap each situation and focus on truly helping my daughter find peace.

Question: Have you struggled with trying to maintain control over your child’s emotions? Share your story with us. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Allisonm

    Thanks Kristin. Not an easy post to write, but a very important one. I have found that parenting a depressed and potentially self-harming child is different from parenting an explosive or raging child in the sense that the danger to my depressed children is often quieter, more subtle and insidious. While my explosive child wears his feelings on his shirtsleeve, my other children hide their pain under layers of activity, aloofness, irritability and trying to act like everything is fine. I don’t fear the emotions themselves, but the self-harm they could give rise to. Trying to control those emotions, however well-intended I might be about it, communicates to my children that there is something wrong about them that needs to be fixed. That message confirms and compounds the wrongness they already feel inside. Setting aside my own fear enough to get out the of the way so my kids can find and develop more personal strength and resilience is an act of faith–in them and in the One who made them. Dealing with my own fear also helps me be a safer ally for my kids, instead of one more person they feel they need to protect from their wrongness. Giving room to grow while trying to prevent self-harm isn’t an easy tightrope to walk.

  • Jennifer Whittemore

    Great article. I read this as I again make the 2 hour each way trip to spend time with my daughter in residential treatment for being suicidal, self-harming and depression. I pray every day as we get closer to bringing her home that I can somehow help her, but know she genuinely has to want help first. Such a tough road to walk but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Jennifer, so sorry to hear that you are on this road. We’ve been there many times in the past with our son. Hang in there.

  • Lea Ann

    Wow. What an important reminder for us all. Whether it’s a child or a parent or a spouse or a friend, we genuinely hurt when we can’t make them happy. It’s so hard to be a friend to a hurting person, to love when nothing is coming back in return. Thank you for your brave vulnerability. I needed this.