Haircuts & Walk-Outs: The Bad Side of Parental Control

Forced haircuts and maternal tantrums are examples of discipline gone wrong.

Posted Feb 08, 2018

As children mature and their caregivers spend lots of time, energy and financial resources on their behalf, even the most reasonable parent can be driven to anger when a child deviates from their family’s expectations. Unfortunately, when this occurs, parents sometimes respond in outlandishly puerile ways, wreaking havoc on their children’s wellbeing. 

Cases & Contexts

In one instance recently shared by a parent on social media, a teenage girl who had blonde highlights placed in her hair as a birthday gift from her mother was reportedly punished by her father for sporting her new style. Her consequence? A drastic haircut which reduced her long, flowing tresses from extending beyond her shoulders all the way down to barely thumb-length—just a few inches long.  The child's mother has reported that her daughter is now devastated and wears a wig to conceal her crudely-cut, very short hair.  Assuming that this account of events is accurate, this father’s actions exemplified authoritarian control, which has been documented to have a counterproductive effect on children’s good behavior.

In another incident just recorded on video at a press conference, the mother of a star student athlete, Jacob Copeland, is seen walking away from him in apparent disgust on National Signing Day, during one of the most pivotal moments in his life.  Copeland’s mother was presumably miffed by his announcement that he intended to "go with his heart", by committing to attend a college that is contrary to her preference. While she did return to hug her son shortly after walking away, this incident appears to be a case of psychological control. 

Psychological control is an intrusive exploitation of the parent-child bond. It includes the withdrawing of affection or the inducing of guilt on a child as a means of influencing his or her behavior. Authoritarian control, as demonstrated by the father of the teenaged girl whose hair was cut, also negatively impacts children. By robbing his daughter of autonomy over her own body, this father did more to breed resentment and contempt than to inspire internal reflection or change.

Undoubtedly, there is additional background information framing each parent's narrative, and parents can likely express legitimate concerns that preceded their actions, whether related to family dynamics, children’s history of problem behaviors, or other relevant factors. Even so, publicly snubbing a child or radically imposing one’s will on a child’s body are unhelpful parent responses to any situation.

How parents manage their power in parent-child relationships will help to predict the quality of family relationships later on. Parents are expected to be the voice for their young children. They decide, for example, whether or not to have their child baptised at their local church, or whether or not to pierce their infant's ears.  Parents also make potentially life-altering decisions, like choosing between a Montessori setting or a more conventional school for their child. As time progresses, parents normally release some of their control, taking into account various variables, including a child’s level of maturity, their track record of good judgment and the impact that a given decision can have on a child’s life. A teenager may be granted parental permission to get a tattoo but have limitations imposed on her regarding the size and location of the tattoo she is allowed to get. Or, a high school student may be allowed to decide between taking a woodworking class and a sewing class, but be given no choice when it comes to taking an advanced math class that will provide broader options for matriculation in college. The key is for decisions to occur in a context that fosters two-way conversation and demonstrates parental empathy.

A Path to A Better Future

Building warm relationships, engaging in active listening, and being respectful of a child's viewpoints all move a child closer to full parental trust and investment, while emotionally aggressive, punitive tactics do just the opposite. A vise-like grip of parental control makes children more likely to experience anxiety and depression.  And, when parents take a “my way or the highway” approach, they typically neglect to focus on a child’s emotional state and on developing their self-regulation skills, which only handicaps children’s ability to make good decisions when they become adults. 

If influence is what a parent wants to have on a child’s life—and which parent doesn’t—it's worth remembering that bidirectional parenting practices add up to a much safer bet for success than harsh unilateral actions taken to exert parental control.    

References

Larzelere, Robert E., et al, (eds) (2013).  Authoritative Parenting: Synthesizing Nurturance and Discipline for Optimal Child Development.  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.