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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rachel Kramer

April 2: Controlling the Controllables

As winter gives way to spring, I have several children in my practice who are managing new challenges: trying out for a spring sports team, studying for a big test or AP exam, or trying out for a play. Typically, during our sessions, we spend time talking about managing the stress of facing these endeavors. During these conversations a tool I find very useful is making a two-column list with the headings: Things I Can Control and Things I Can’t Control. Writing out this sort of list helps children focus their effort and energy on the aspects of a situation where their behavior and choices can make a difference rather than spinning their wheels over elements that are out of their control.

 

For example, if a child is auditioning for a play or trying out for a club sports team, the lists might look like:

 

Things I Can Control:

  • For the month before the audition/tryouts, taking time most days to rehearse my lines/practice my skills

  • Going to bed early the night before the audition/tryouts

  • Eating a healthy breakfast the day of the audition/tryouts

  • How I think about it: I’m going to be as prepared as possible and do my best to display my skills so no matter what happens I’ll know I put in my best effort

 

Things I Can’t Control

  • The skill or experience level of the other actors/players

  • Whether or not I will know any of the other kids or adults at the audition/tryouts

  • If the director/coach is looking for someone with a very particular set of skills that I don’t have

  • The weather the day of the audition/tryouts

 

This exercise has so many benefits. By focusing on what they can control, children can focus their time, attention, and energy on the parts of the process where their efforts can truly make a difference. Focusing on aspects of the situation that are within their control promotes a sense of agency and helps children feel empowered. A simple way to summarize this approach is to encourage your child to control the controllables.Note that I made a point of including the way that a child thinks about an experience in the ‘Things I Can Control’ category. It can be transformative for a child to realized that even in situations where they do not have a lot of control, they can always be in charge of how they choose to think about a situation, such as whether they focus on positive or neutral aspects or focus on the negative. Parents can support children’s ability to notice the connection between how we think about a situation and the feelings we experience. For example, by pointing out, “When you spend a lot of time thinking about the other kids who are trying out, does it make you feel more nervous or less nervous?”

 

Parents can also support positive self-talk that encourages focusing on the aspects of a situation that are within a child’s control:

  • “This is a tough situation and I’m going to do my best.”

  • “I’m nervous. Remember my goal is to put in my best effort. That’s the part I can control.”

  • “This is a big challenge and I’ve faced big challenges before. I’m going to give it my best shot.”

  • “Two things are true: this is a tricky situation and I’m a kid who can do hard things.”

  • “I’m not in charge of the other kids who are here. I can only be in charge of myself.”

 

Another time that this type of two column list can be useful is if your child is struggling with a social conflict or a disappointing social situation. Shifting focus to controlling the controllables can help your child re-focus on aspects of the situation over which they have some agency and decision-making power, such as choosing to play or make plans with a different friend. Finally, keep in mind that this tool can also be very useful for adults. Next time you are faced with a challenging situation, consider making your own two column list.

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