The Control Trap

with Penny Williams

In this episode of Beautifully Complex, I explore the detrimental effects of trying to control kids, emphasizing the importance of a humanistic approach to behavior. After watching the recent documentary series on Netflix called “The Program,” I was both horrified by the trauma that the “troubled teen industry” causes and inspired to talk about the much more helpful perspective science offers regarding behavior.

I’ve identified 8 key elements that help us feel good so we can do good, and none of them have anything to do with control. Through personal experiences and impassioned insights, I shed light on the need to empower kids, especially those who are neurodivergent, and the damaging impact of not respecting their individuality and autonomy.

Join me in understanding the importance of taking a humanistic approach to behavior and nurturing an environment that supports and values the uniqueness of every child.

3 key takeaways:
    1. When we try to control kids, we do the opposite of what we intend to do. Kids are their own individuals and not here for us to control.
    2. To feel good so we can do good, individuals need connection and relationships, to feel seen, heard, and understood, a sense of belonging, autonomy, safety, and to feel loved and cared for.
    3. The societal trap of focusing on control can be damaging and counterproductive. It’s essential to shift the narrative and prioritize a humanistic approach to behavior.

You’ll Learn

  • The importance of providing connection and relationships to feel settled and capable, and how it leads to a more doable environment. Action: Evaluate opportunities to foster connections and relationships with your child or students.

  • The significance of feeling seen, heard, and understood to maintain a sense of individuality and authenticity. Action: Create an environment that promotes individuality and authenticity for your child or students.

  • The impact of autonomy on building confidence and managing anxiety. Action: Encourage decision-making and autonomy, even in small choices, for children to build a sense of control.

  • The necessity of feeling safe, not just physically but also psychologically, emotionally, and socially, to maintain well-being. Action: Create a safe and supportive environment for your child or students, where they feel psychologically and emotionally secure.

  • The importance of feeling loved and cared for, and its role in promoting a genuine sense of belonging and connection. Action: Express and exhibit love and care to assure your child or students feel valued and connected.


  • Subscribe to Clarity — my weekly newsletter to help you get clear on how to be the parent your neurodivergent kid needs.

  • Work with me to level up your parenting — online parent training and coaching  for neurodiverse families.

Some of the resources may be affiliate links, meaning I receive a commission (at no cost to you) if you use that link to make a purchase.


Penny Williams [00:00:03]: When we try to control other people, We are doing the opposite that we intend to do. Our kids are not here for us to control them. They're not here for us to determine what they do and when they do it and what's important to them and how things get done. They are their own individual person.

Penny Williams [00:00:31]: Welcome to the Beautifully Complex podcast where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started.

Penny Williams [00:00:54]: Hi, friends. Welcome back to Beautifully Complex. I have a somewhat personal topic to discuss with you today. Not personal in that it's personal to me or experience, but personal in the fact that I feel really passionate about it, and I find it very troublesome. And I just wanna share my viewpoint about control and the trap that we fall into, not just as parents, but as a society in focusing on control. I am definitely a true crime junkie. It is the sociologist in me, and I also have a deep interest in cults and things like that. And, again, it's the sociology background that I have, that interest in how we interact with each other as a culture and a society that really provides that interest plus my interest in psychology, of course, and why people do what they do and things like that.

Penny Williams [00:02:08]: And so if any of you are interested in those same things, you might have already noticed a new documentary series on Netflix called The Program by director Catherine Kubler who also is pivotal in that story as well. And I also have this real issue with binging things, so I've already watched the whole thing even though I think it came out some point last week as I'm recording this. So within a couple of days, I had watched the whole thing, stayed up too late one night, and I was just so immersed in the story of these teens who had been at this troubled teen private boarding school. Right? And this particular boarding school that she talks about, Ivy Ridge in New York, they actually would send someone to kidnap your kid out of their bed and handcuff them and put them on a plane and take them to the school, which is very much a scare tactic. And then, you know, as they unfold the story about what happened to them as kids at this particular school, we see that it was all about fear and control and sort of breaking the will of teenagers, and it was just all about control. And as I watched every single moment of this program and them explaining kid after kid who had been at the school, the trauma, the deep, deep trauma that they have endured that has greatly impacted their lives I just kept thinking about behavior and again this is such a clear signal that we, as a culture, as human beings, the sense that we need to control kids just happens in so many cultures and maybe all of them. And what we know in the science, what we know about neurology and our autonomic nervous system and about psychology is that all of the things that we do to control kids actually make things worse. Do you all hear me on this? When we try to control other people, we are doing the opposite that we intend to do.

Penny Williams [00:04:51]: Our kids are not here for us to control them. They're not here for us to determine what they do and when they do it and what's important to them and how things get done. They're their own individual person. And when we have challenging behavior, which is how kids end up in these troubled teen programs in schools, we need to be leaning away from control and leaning into a humanistic approach, a humanistic approach. So let me dive a little deeper in this now that I have fully immersed you in part of my rant and part of my pain from watching this documentary because, again, the whole time I'm just thinking, this is like a very clear 4 or 5 hour seminar on what not to do on how to completely destroy your child, and that was not the intention of these parents. The intention of these parents was to help their kid because they were at their wits and they had no idea what to do because we are not, as a culture, addressing behavior in a humanistic way. So what we should be doing is focusing on the following 8 things. There are 8 things that help us to feel good so we can do good, and these are, you know, proven by research and science and our understanding of the brain and our autonomic nervous system.

Penny Williams [00:06:38]: This is what we know we need to be regulated and to feel capable and confident so that we can do well in the world. The first one, and you guys know this, if you've been listening to more than just this one episode, it's connection and relationships. When we feel connected, our system feels settled. It feels okay. It feels competent so that things feel more doable, and taking a risk and stepping out feels more doable. At this school that was documented in the program, Ivy Ridge, they were forbidden to create relationships and connection with other students because the school wanted complete control over every kid, and they suspected wrongly that, you know, you put a bunch of air quotes, bad kids together, they're only gonna scheme to do more bad things again with my air quotes. Right? We know that's not true. We know that everyone needs connection in order to feel good so they can do good.

Penny Williams [00:08:02]: And so all of these kids were purposefully robbed of making connection. So even though they were in a school with 100 of other teens going through something similar, at least hardship, They were all going through this institutional trauma, and they couldn't support each other. They weren't allowed. They got in trouble, big trouble. Sometimes physical restraint and abuse, honestly, abuse. So we know that connection is super important in making things doable and in making us feel like we can go out in the world and succeed at something. So any program that removes that ability to connect, whether it's isolation, whether it's, you know, rules that forbid such things, that is a red flag. It will be traumatizing.

Penny Williams [00:09:04]: It will have the opposite effect on your kid than what you want. And the majority of these troubled teen programs are about control and completely eliminating connection, and that is a recipe for disaster. You're adding trauma, and you're adding things that are going to escalate that situation. So the second thing that we all need to feel good and be able to do good is to feel seen, truly seen as our authentic selves. When you are put into an environment where you are told what to think, what to wear, who you can talk to and not talk to, when you can talk to them and not talk to them, it strips all sense of individuality, which these types of schools and programs do on purpose. But, again, we need to feel seen as human beings to feel good and do good. We also need to feel heard. Number 3.

Penny Williams [00:10:21]: We need to feel heard in order to feel good and do good. We have to feel like people are listening to us. Like, what we have to say even matters because what every person has to say matters. Every single thing someone has to say matters because it matters to them, and that is important. And when we don't pay attention to what people are trying to tell us or are actually telling us with their words, we don't make them feel good. We make them feel bad. Right? And when we don't feel good, it's really hard to do good. It's really hard to take risks.

Penny Williams [00:11:09]: It's really hard to put yourself out there. It's really hard to continue to even try. And so, again, these programs that rob kids of these things are actually making things worse instead of better. Number 4 of what we need to feel good so we can do good is to feel understood. And, again, this ties in with feeling seen and heard, and it ties in with allowing kids to be their authentic selves, to not try to change or stifle who they are, especially to do that for the comfort of others. You know? Masking comes to mind when I talk about this. A lot of people on the spectrum, and I would say also people just with different mental health issues, anxiety, depression, ADHD, especially social anxiety, we mask so that people don't know that we're struggling. We mask so that we can fit in and be accepted.

Penny Williams [00:12:22]: And when we feel like we need to mask, we don't feel seen, heard, or understood. And that also ties into number 5, a sense of belonging. If we don't have a sense of belonging, we can't feel good. And if we can't feel good, we can't do good. And you can't get a true genuine sense of belonging if you don't feel seen, heard, and understood, If you don't feel like you can be your authentic self. You can't have a sense of belonging when you are not your authentic self around others. So even if you feel like they have accepted you, you've been accepted based on a facade, right, that doesn't feel genuine. And so you don't feel a genuine sense of belonging.

Penny Williams [00:13:20]: And, again, I'm gonna repeat this over and over and over. If you don't have that, you don't feel good. If you don't feel good, you can't do good. So now we're on number 6, autonomy. This is such a big one. Such a big one. We all need to have a sense of control over ourselves, over what happens to us, over our destiny. We need to feel a sense of control.

Penny Williams [00:13:54]: For people with anxiety, this is huge. If we're talking about kids, teens, young adults with anxiety, they need a sense of control more than anything else because that anxiety is a lack of a feeling of control over what might happen. And, you know, this program at Ivy Ridge and this documentary that I've been talking about, specifically and very purposefully is designed to remove all autonomy. All autonomy. It is designed to make them behave exactly the way that they want them to with no decisions on the part of the teens. They had no say whatsoever. If they tried to have a say, they were punished. It's traumatizing to be trapped in a place where you have no control over yourself and you can't even leave in this instance.

Penny Williams [00:14:58]: When you feel like you have no control, you do not feel good, your anxiety is super high, you don't feel like you belong, you don't feel like you've been seen, heard, or understood, You don't feel like you're connecting to anyone. Right? All of these things that I'm talking about here are very, very interconnected. This is woven together like a fabric. Right? This human experience and condition requires these very connected things in order for us to feel good about ourselves and be able to move through the world in a confident way where we are able to get things done, where things feel doable. And having autonomy is so important. I've talked about this before, like, even super young kids, we need to start giving them a sense of autonomy very early. We shouldn't be dictating to our kids what every decision in their life is gonna be. Right? We don't want them to depend on us as adults, so we have to start teaching them how to make good decisions when they are in control very early, and that can start with measured choices.

Penny Williams [00:16:16]: Do you want to have the Disney plate or the action adventure plate, right, for your food. Clearly, I have older kids. I don't know what kids watch now, so I don't have specific examples. I feel like such an old person at the moment, but you get what I'm trying to say. Give them some choices and let them make the ultimate decision. That's how you start early in giving kids a sense of autonomy and independence. And when they have that, things are much more doable. People are much more flexible, and some of our kids really struggle with that flexibility.

Penny Williams [00:16:58]: Right? So now we're on number 7. 7 out of 8. Number 7, and really this should be number 1, feeling safe. If you don't feel safe, you cannot do good. Cannot. It's physically impossible because your autonomic nervous system is dysregulated. It is firing all kinds of alarms, and those alarms are overwhelming. They are knocking your thinking brain offline.

Penny Williams [00:17:30]: You know, this is just one big biological domino effect when we don't feel safe. And I'm talking about more than physical safety here. Now in a lot of these troubled teen programs, they don't feel physically safe, and they're not, honestly. What they showed in this documentary about this specific program, these kids were physically abused a lot of the times. Their life was in jeopardy many times. It's very, very sad and very traumatic, but they need to feel safe not only physically, but also psychologically, emotionally, and socially. And when you're removing that sense of autonomy and connection and being able to be your authentic self, you don't feel safe. You don't feel safe in an environment where you can't be yourself, where you can't make decisions for yourself.

Penny Williams [00:18:28]: And, you know, as I'm talking about this, and I know as you're listening to this, this is pretty common sense stuff, but the problem is that our culture says no. We have to control people. We have to control kids. And we sort of follow that blindly. Right? That's what we grow up knowing for the most part, most of us. And so while this is common sense as we dig deep and unpack it, we're not going there as a culture, and we need to. We need to do this for every kid, for every future adult, for the future of our society. It sounds dramatic, but it is 100% true, folks.

Penny Williams [00:19:12]: 100%. This is where we need to be shifting our narrative about behavior. So let's do number 8. The very last thing that goes on my list of what we need to feel good and do good is feeling loved and cared for. If we feel loved and cared for, we feel connection. We feel belonging. Right? Like, we have relationships with others. We feel seen, heard, and understood.

Penny Williams [00:19:42]: We feel like we can make mistakes and get through them. And when you're in a really in flexible environment, your home culture, one of these troubled teen experiences or schools, you don't have that. And, honestly, what a lot of these kids in this documentary shared is that they felt very

Penny Williams [00:20:04]: rejected and abandoned by

Penny Williams [00:20:04]: their own parents. And to controlled and manipulated in a very huge way to keep their kids in the program, to keep them there, to not believe them when they say this place is awful, This place is traumatic. I really feel like I need to leave here and come home. You know, the parents were provided a narrative that, of course, your kid's gonna say that because they wanna control you. Right? They're manipulating you. And, really, you know, the industry, the program was manipulating the parents. So, you know, as parents, we can easily fall into these traps, and that's why I've called this episode the control trap, because this is a really societal trap that is laid out right in front of our feet as parents, as educators. And it's just awful.

Penny Williams [00:21:14]: You know? It's just awful. And I just really, really, really wanna help you guys sidestep the control trap. I really do. Because this is where we raise really grounded, comfortable, authentic, happy kids into adults. That is where kids who are neurodivergent can find success. It is not within us trying to make them fit into our neurotypical world, and we have to be very careful that we don't make kids feel rejected or abandoned. Even in our day to day parenting, this happens. You know? We so often are told, like, make your kids sit in time out.

Penny Williams [00:22:06]: Right? Send your kids to their room. I mean, my god. We all grew up that way. We were all sent to our room when we misbehaved. Again, I have my air quotes going. You can't see me, but misbehaved is in air quotes. That was the way that we were raised, but it's a sense of rejection very often on the receiving end. So I want you all to really maybe list these out on a piece of paper, these 8 things that we need to feel good and do good.

Penny Williams [00:22:39]: Connection and relationships, feeling seen, feeling heard, feeling understood, having a sense of belonging, a sense of autonomy, feeling safe, and feeling loved and cared about. Write those down where you can revisit them many many times, and really think about them in your day to day life with your kids, in your day to day work in classrooms, or in your therapy practice, your occupational therapy, your behavior, play therapy, all these things. Think about how what you're doing is received by the kids, teens, and young adults? Are you giving them a sense that they can be who they are, that you see, feel, hear, and understand them. It's so, so important, especially for challenging complex kids, especially for teens who fit into this troubled teen again with my air quotes cause I hate the term. They're not troubled teens. They're surrounded by people who don't get them, and they don't see that they're signaling loud and clear that they need help, that they are struggling. It should be called the struggling teen industry, and it should be totally, totally different. 100% different.

Penny Williams [00:24:08]: Okay. Rant over. So I encourage you, if you have any interest in this, to watch this Netflix documentary series called The Program. It is really eye opening and gives you a very clear picture of what not to do. And it really helps you to feel very strongly about not doing it, honestly. And, you know, just remember that the way kids receive things isn't necessarily the way we intend them. And sometimes, our really, really, really good intentions are traumatizing to kids. They send the wrong messages or they're received in a different way than we intend them.

Penny Williams [00:24:50]: So be very mindful of that. Be very mindful of these 8 areas with your own kids and students and clients so that you don't accidentally have these sort of issues. So you can get the show notes for this episode at parentingadhdandautism.com/257 for episode 257. I will have this documentary series on Netflix linked up there, and I hope that you have learned something from this, that maybe this has been eye opening for you as well. If not, at least I hope that it has sort of reignited your passion around taking a humanistic approach to behavior. I will see all of you in the next episode. Take good care.

Penny Williams [00:25:48]: Thanks for joining me on the Beautifully Complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingadhdandautism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com.

Thanks for joining me!

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