“Can I please go over to Jordan’s house after school?”
“I don’t want asparagus for dinner!”
“Why do I have to be home by 11, Mary’s mom lets her stay out until at least 12!”
“That is so unfair!”
If any of above sounds familiar, you probably know what it feels like to have little control over your own life. As children and teenagers, our parents and teachers call the shots—they make the rules and it’s our job to follow them. Want pizza for dinner? It’s up to dad. Need a ride to the movies? You’ll have to see if mom is free to drive you. It sometimes feels like kids are surrounded by adults making choices for them.
I recently looked at a picture of myself from my first day of kindergarten in our family photo album. My mother had dressed me in a lime green sweatshirt covered in paint splatters, purple sweatpants, and light-up sneakers. I looked like I had fallen into a pile of clown clothes.
“But it’s cute!” my mom exclaimed when I confronted her with the picture later that afternoon. “You were so bright and colorful.”
“I look ridiculous,” I told her, stuffing the picture back into its place. “Why didn’t you just let me dress myself?”
“You would have chosen something even more silly,” she told me, pointing to another picture where I was wearing three Halloween costumes at once. “This outfit here was your creation.” She looked at the picture for a moment. “But you do look really happy.”
I did. I was covered in Batman and Barbie stickers and grinning from ear to ear. I looked really silly, but I seemed proud that I had dressed myself. Even as a young kid, I knew how good it felt to have some power and control over my own choices.
When We Have No Control, We Learn to Act Helpless
Psychology researchers have confirmed how important it is to feel as though we have some sense of control over our lives. Martin Seligman and his fellow researchers explored the idea that it is all about what we believe: when we believe that we can control our surroundings, we perform better, we’re less anxious, and we’re happier.
In one experiment, two groups of people were asked to solve word puzzles while wearing a pair of headphones. But as they attempted to solve these puzzles, experimenters played an annoying, loud tone through their headphones! Imagine, you’re trying to focus on your homework at your desk, when a loud alarm starts blaring from outside your window—and you have no control to make it stop!
Now, both groups had a button in front of them. If you were in the first group, you could press that button all you want, but the tone would not stop! If you were in the second group—lucky you! You could press the button to stop the noise.
Researchers found that just knowing they could push the button to make the tone stop led people to do better on the word puzzles. They didn’t even have to push the button—just knowing they had some control, that they could push the button if they needed, was enough. They had some control over the situation. People who couldn’t do anything to make the tone stop did much worse! They felt helpless and out of control. They had no tools to get themselves out of an annoying situation, and their performance on the word puzzles suffered.
The researchers then took it a step further in the second part of their experiment. Now both groups were able to push that button to stop the tone. You would think that people would be pushing that button left and right. But only people who had previously been able to push the button actually did! In other words, people who couldn’t control the button in the first part of the experiment received the message that their actions were useless. “I can’t stop the tone, so why bother trying,” they concluded. Once the situation changed, and they were given some control, they failed to take advantage of the situation and didn’t even both trying to stop the tone. This is known in psychology as “learned helplessness.”
When people believe that they have no control over what happens to them, they eventually stop trying and may miss important opportunities to gain back some control over their lives. In your own life, if you come to believe that nothing is under your control, you may not notice those “buttons” right in front of you, waiting to be pushed.
How to Gain Back some Control
If you have ever been sent to your room as punishment, you might understand how much better it feels to have control. Imagine your parents said, “You are going to you room, and don’t come out until we tell you!” You sit on your bed, twiddling your thumbs and waiting, waiting, waiting for them to finally allow you to come downstairs. You don’t know how long this punishment will last. It could be minutes, it could be hours! It feels like forever, and there is nothing you can do to change it. Now imagine your parents said, “You are going to your room, and you can come out once you have written a letter apologizing for what you have done!” All of a sudden, you have some control. You know exactly what you need to do to get out of your room, and you just need to take the steps to do it. YOU control how long your punishment is. Once you write that letter, you are free to go.
We might not always have control over what’s for dinner or what time curfew is, but it is important for us to figure out what in our lives we can control. Just like people pressing buttons or babies moving their heads, when we learn what do have control over, it increases our confidence and gives us a more positive life outlook!
Tips to you boost your sense of control:
- What’s in your control? Make a list of things in your life that you can control. This might be anything from “I can control how I act towards others” to “I can control how much effort I put into improving my basketball skills.”
- What can you change? Write down small concrete steps that can help you achieve the goals that you can control. For example, a friend wanted to improve her health, and so she took small steps to eat healthy foods and run a little bit each day. Last week, she finished a half-marathon and felt great!
- Let go of the rest. Accept the parts of your life that you cannot control. There are some things that we just have no control over. Sometimes our parents have the final say. Sometimes people don’t always act nicely. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate. Focus on what you personally can do to overcome obstacles, and don’t get tied up thinking about what you wish you could control.
In the future, you will be an adult making decisions for yourself, and you will have dozens of difficult choices to make. You may even be a parent with children of your own, and you will have to set limits to keep them safe and healthy. You might not want to let your kids have pizza for dinner every night, but maybe, just maybe, you can let them pick out their first day of school outfit. Even if they put on a mismatched jumble of costumes and head out the door, you’ll have some great photos to tease them with when they grow up.