As we start a new year, it’s a good time to think about how to evaluate the multitude of advice that we get about parenting children who have suffered trauma. We hear about attachment theory, trauma-focused parenting, and a multitude of other ways of parenting from just as many experts. Having parented depressed and suicidal foster children, I know how overwhelming it can be to hear all of the well-intended advice. Yes, there are steps we can take to help our children. Yes, there is always another article or book or blog post suggesting yet another technique that we have not thought about. And yes, it is impossible to do everything.
One thing that we have to keep in mind as we sift through all of the advice is that we cannot completely control our children. They have free will and will make their own decisions about what they believe is in their own interests. We can encourage, motivate, nudge, nag, and lecture our children, but we cannot control them.
In fact, we should not control them. They need to learn to make their own decisions and fight their own battles. Our biggest job as parents is to help our children become functional adults. But it is very hard to know when to set limits and when to let them make their own decisions about their lives. Knowing that they will be doing that someday does not help us know when to let them make decisions now.
Furthermore, it is one thing to recognize their independence in minor decisions, such as spending allowances or choosing clothes. It is another thing entirely when our children are making really terrible life-changing decisions, such as dropping out of school, taking drugs, or threatening suicide. Yet, the principle holds true even in those crises. No matter what techniques we use to influence our children, they will make their own decisions. In fact, the more we try to override their decision, the more insistent they may become on their course of action. We will find ourselves in an endless and futile loop.
Recognizing that we cannot control our children does not mean that we give up on them. Nor does it mean that we give up on trying to keep them safe. We can control much of their environment, and we can control many consequences of their behavior. A child doesn’t have to do his homework, for example, but neither do we have to spend our time driving him to play at a friend’s house. On more serious issues, we can put medicines and firearms out of reach of a depressed child. We can be available to talk, and we can try to be encouraging. We can do something to help, even if we can’t do everything.
There are many things around our children that we can control – much of their environment, consequences for bad decisions, our reactions, the standards we set for them, and accountability for those standards. But we cannot control their reactions or their decisions. At the end of the day, all we can do is all we can do. We have to learn to let go of the rest.