Alice Roosevelt was, apparently, a high-spirited adolescent. Her father, President Teddy Roosevelt, once remarked, “I can be the President of the United States, or I can control Alice. I can not possibly do both.” And presumably he had staff to help him!
But with all due respect to the former President, I think he was mistaken. No matter how powerful we are, no matter how many resources we have at our command, we can’t “control” our teenagers.
And perhaps we shouldn’t want to. Give them boundaries? Yes. Establish some guidelines and direction? Yes. (Very) occasionally discipline? Yes.
But I think the effort to control is a misplaced one. Not only are we pretty much guaranteed to fail – or at least be ineffective – but we will probably end up damaging our relationship with our children in the process. If we try to exert “control,” we will likely end up in one of those no-win and potentially disastrous power struggles.
My husband likes to use a fishing analogy (I’m not sure why; I don’t think he’s ever gone fishing in his life). We need to let the line out gently – as far as we think is safe. At the point where it is no longer safe (emotionally, physically, psychologically), we need to carefully and gently reel them back in, carefully being the operative word.
With children of all ages, and most especially adolescents, one of the best strategies to give them a choice (“You can be home at 9:59 or 10:01; which do you prefer? is one of our favorites!) “You can buy the shoes or the dress.” “You can stay out an extra ½ hour tonight or Saturday night.” “You can have the car this afternoon or this evening.” “You can go to this concert or that one – but NOT this one” (someone will have to fill in the blanks for me here).
The last thing teenagers want to feel is powerless -- probably because that’s the way they truly feel inside. We don’t want to heighten their anxiety and thereby harden their need to assert control.
So we need to back off ourselves. We must tamp down our own need and desire for control.
It helps when we recognize that our sense of control is only an illusion anyway, that the Almighty is really running the show.
And it helps to phrase certain rules that might be (mis)interpreted by our offspring as too restrictive (wait; that applies to every rule!) or as attempts at control as reflective of our own shtick.
“I get nervous when…” “I can’t sleep when…” “It would be a kindness to me if…” This allows them to save face in front their friends, as they blame their neurotic parents. It also gives them permission and freedom to back out of an uncomfortable situation with grace and with their ego and street creds intact.
I’m sure Teddy Roosevelt was right that he couldn’t control his daughter, Alice. He was just wrong in thinking he should try.