Internal Locus of Control

Late last month, I wrote about external locus of control, when you believe that people or events outside yourself control you and you have very little, if any, say in what happens to you. Now it seems like a good idea to talk about internal locus of control and describe the child-rearing practices that bring about confident, self-assured children.

It’s too late for us, of course. Only in adulthood do we discover that we can control some thing and this belief has to be laid on top of feelings of helplessness. But it isn’t too late for whatever outside children we may have or for our inside children. (Teaching and supporting inner children is pretty much the same as teaching and supporting outside children.)

A baby starts off totally dependent on its mother or caretaker, with no concept of cause and effect. But if the baby gets fed every time he cries, he begins to think that crying brings food. It’s as if the world is designed to meet a baby’s needs — hunger brings food, being tired brings sleep, being cold brings more clothes or a warm blanket.

As the baby grows, it begins to dawn on him that he can’t control EVERYTHING. If he drops a toy from the highchair, it won’t come back up just because he holds out his hand. He’s shocked because he believed he was all-powerful. You can see him staring in amazement at the toy just lying there, and he may burst into tears of frustration.

You know the serenity prayer? “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Figuring that out is the task of childhood!

The mother starts off with total control over the baby. If she clings to that control, her child will still be dependent on her at age sixty. But if she gradually loosens control over her child and encourages independence, experimentation, learning to make choices, all those good things, the child will have internal locus of control. He won’t be deluded into thinking he has control over everything or control over nothing, but he will know he can make a mark on the world.

Now, as an adult struggling with the after-effects of RA and my suffocating childhood, I have the task of re-parenting the child parts within me. How can I do this, when my fragmented mind hops around like a bunny rabbit and floats in time, forgetting stuff and losing things right and left? It’s a constant struggle to keep the chaos down to a mild roar.

I have to keep things simple. I have to give my child parts simple choices and then honor those choices. It may not seem like a big deal to me what color socks I wear, but my child parts care. And I want those child parts to realize that they are the kind of person who has the power to influence the world. “See? These purple socks prove it. If you hadn’t chosen those socks, they would be in the drawer out off sight. You made the world see purple socks!” And then I have to offer ever more complex choices, just like I would with an outer child.

If I had been raised in safety and slowly given more and more choices, today I would feel empowered. That’s what I gave my own children and that’s what I want for my child parts.

Locus of Control

This is one of those psych jargon words that looks like it means nothing but actually describes a pretty useful concept. Locus is the Latin word for place, and “locus of control” means where a person thinks control comes from. If you have an internal locus of control, it means that you feel in control of yourself and your environment most of the time. If you have an external locus of control, it means that you feel that things outside yourself control you and that you merely react to these forces.

Belief about locus of control is generally set early in life, although it can be modified with experience. I’ll use my upbringing as an example of how locus of control is set.

My parents believed that children should be given plenty of structure so that they would grow up disciplined, orderly, and tidy and have clear, precise ways of thinking. Every aspect of my existence was micro-managed. As a baby, I was fed the same measured amount of the same foods at the same times every day and put down in my crib at the same exact times every day. No change was made unless the pediatrician initiated it.

The rigid schedule continued through pre-school and grade school. Everything was allocated a certain amount of time and was to be done in a certain way. There was no deviation from the routine. School to me was an oasis of freedom, even though school bells signaled the beginning and end of classes, recess, and lunch period. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to enjoy the freedom and often stood at the edges of things, waiting to be told what to do.

I grew up feeling like a little piece of wood bobbing on the waves of a great big mysterious ocean. I didn’t get an A, I was given an A. Why? Who knew. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I noticed that the things I did or didn’t do had an effect on other people and on my surroundings. But to this day, I have to remind myself that I do have control over myself – I just was trained not to believe it.

Too much structure and no freedom to make choices isn’t the only way to create a kid with an external locus of control.

If parents have no idea of structure, kids are brought up in chaos. Nothing is predictable. One day the kids get smacked for something, the next day they are hugged and called cute for exactly the same behavior. They fall asleep when they can and wake up when they are startled out of sleep. They eat when there is food around and get a bath when somebody thinks of it. They are often late for school and skip a lot of days, so they miss out on the structure of the school environment. Kids like this are every bit as run by other people as I was.

I haven’t talked about abuse of any kind, let alone ritual abuse. I wanted to remain focused on the basic process of raising a kid with no sense of self-control and not get wound up in the horrors of ritual abuse. But it’s clear to me that adding severe abuse and torture shreds the last vestige of a child’s sense of control. No wonder we are easy to re-victimize.