Empowering Kids to Take Action and Responsibility: Cultivating an Internal Locus of Control
Updated: Aug 8
Parents and teachers strive to see children off into the scary “real-world” equipped with the skills to handle whatever life throws their way. We want them to feel empowered, capable, and successful--masters of their destiny. In short, we hope that they possess an internal locus of control--a concept studied exhaustively in psychology that is predictive of well-being and success.
What is "Locus of Control" and Why is it so Important?
An individual possessing a strong internal locus of control is one who believes strongly in their ability to affect change around them.
These individuals are empowered by the belief that they are in control of their own lives and see an abundance of opportunities to influence the world around them.
As you may expect, an internal locus of control corresponds to myriad positive outcomes. Thousands of studies have demonstrated that an internal locus of control “positively correlates with almost all desirable attributes of humans” (A. Flammer, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2001). Those with this locus of control engage in active coping and independent decision-making. This belief also correlates with decreased anxiety. If you find yourself wondering where you fall on the locus of control continuum, a quick handout (here) will give you a good sense. It’s been an effective measure since 1966!
The other side of the coin is an external locus of control. Individuals with a strong external locus of control feel that life is happening to them. They will often view their circumstances as a matter of luck or happenstance. As a result, they are often less motivated to take action; after all, what use is it if they believe they have little ability to affect the world around them? This outlook breeds worry and anxiety while hinders problem-solving and the pursuit of dreams.
Three Important Disclaimers:
Most people’s locus of control varies across situations. For example, one might have a low health locus of control. That is, they don’t view themselves as in control of their own health. However, this very same person might have a high career locus of control. They believe they are in control of their career and its trajectory
Internal/external locus of control is not an indictment of one’s character. Our locus of control is complicated and the sum of many different factors (see the next section)
Locus of control is a continuum/spectrum. Just about everyone falls in between the two extremes of completely external or internal.
Factors Influencing Locus of Control:
How to Develop an Internal Locus of Control in Yourself and Your Children
Everyone wants to feel in control of their life. By extension, we want this for our children. Fortunately, there are things that can be done to gradually instill this empowering mindset. Consider incorporating these suggestions:
Controllables! One of the first things you must do is identify what you have control of and what you do not. Those with an external locus of control waste time focusing on what might happen. This lost time produces anxiety and needless worry. Focus your efforts on what you can control.
Take responsibility for yourself. This is where #1 becomes really difficult. We, and our children, can only take responsibility for our actions and thoughts. Focus your energy on your responses to others and the environment around you instead of wishing others would behave differently.
Practice responding instead of reacting. All people are tempted to react to a situation. This is the unconscious, emotionally-driven action. A reaction does not consider long-term consequences and is devoid of reason. A response begins with the same unconscious processes and emotions. However, we can learn to consciously inject a pause and engage our rational thought to consider consequences before committing to any action. A response is a thoughtful action.
Seek the opinion of another with a strong internal locus of control. Why not use the “experts” around us? They will often provide perspective and point out areas in which we have more control than we realize. As adults, we must work hard to be the “expert” in this regard for our children.
Start small. Initiate small tasks and accomplish them quickly. This builds the action-oriented “muscle” that is essential to developing an internal locus of control.
Practice Self-care and compassion. Changing deeply embedded thought processes takes time. We must be compassionate with ourselves and our journey. Practice self-care. Adults and children must be physically active and socially connected. This is positively correlated with decreased anxiety and elevated mood.
Bringing it Together: The Parent/Teacher Role
Perhaps one of the most frightening things about being a parent is the recognition that you are one of the most important role models in your child’s life. Our behavior alone conveys thousands of implicit lessons—how people should be treated, how frustration is handled, what a romantic relationship should look like, what a strong work ethic is...and so forth. Strive to model action. Speak your thoughts aloud. It is a wonderful thing for kids to hear adults reason through problems. Let them hear you focus on the controllables and then watch you take action. Life is messy. We cannot protect our kids from this reality. However, we can acknowledge its complexity while modeling how liberating it is to be in the driver’s seat of our own lives.
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