Teach your Child this Crucial Life Lesson (Challenge #2: Sphere of Control)

When we believe that we can control our surroundings, we perform better.
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“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 10? Mary’s mom lets her stay out until at least 11!”

“That is so unfair!”

If any of the 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’s no wonder that sometimes kids feel as if they are surrounded by adults making choices for them.

I recently looked at a picture of myself in our family photo album from my first day of kindergarten. 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.”

“Um, I kind of 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 a bit ridiculous, 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 choices.

The Science of Control in a Nutshell

The renowned psychologist, Martin Seligman, studied this idea of control as it is related to mental health in a series of experiments in the mid-1960s. What Seligman discovered was this:

When people believe that they have no control over bad things that happen to them, they eventually stop trying to make their life and circumstance better–they give up.

Seligman called this phenomena “Learned Helplessness” and it’s important to note that both actual control and perceived control–what you believe you have control over–affect well-being. For example, if children who perform poorly in school don’t have success with additional studying, they may begin to believe that nothing they do will positively affect their performance. So they start to give up. In other words, the children have learned they are helpless and have no control over improving their circumstance.

So, how do you take back control? This week, try our second challenge!

Paper Napkin Mental Health Challenge #2: Sphere of Control

When we believe that we can control our surroundings, we perform better, we’re less anxious, and we’re happier. We might not always have control over what’s for dinner or what time curfew begins, but it is important for us to figure out what we do have control over in our lives and focus on that.

  1. Draw two concentric circles. Within the inside circle, write things in your life over which you believe you have control. By the way, you can trace a cup or plate if you’re not great at drawing circles–that’s what I did!
  1. In the outside circle, write things in your life that are out of your control.
  1. This week try to both focus on improving things in the inside circle and expanding the inside circle by adding in more things over which you believe you have control.

Remember, once you take the challenge, teach one other person the technique and ask him or her to pass it on as well!

Have an anxious child? Join us at www.gozen.com

This post was originally published on PsychCentral

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