When you fail, is it your fault? When you succeed, is it just dumb luck?
The way we explain our successes and failures has a tremendous impact on how we cope with stress. These explanations can help us define how much control we have over our surroundings, ourselves, and our mental health. But that process can be tragically damaged if a child is abused or their needs are not met during these formative years when dependence on environment is at its most critical.
Recent research shows that children raised with proper attention, love, and care are likelier to develop what’s called an internal locus of control (LOC). Those with an internal LOC believe that any given outcome is influenced by their abilities, their hard work brings positive rewards, and that consequences happen. But ultimately, they believe that it is their choice whether they’d like to take control of it.
However children who are abused, or brought up in abusive environments, grow up to develop an external locus of control. An external locus of control has been associated with powerlessness, the world appearing out of their control, hopelessness, depression, higher stress, anxiety, or feeling overwhelmed. The term ‘locus of control’ was coined by American Psychologist Julian B. Rotter in 1954 and has since become a focal point for the study of self-esteem and self-efficacy. There are four possible outcomes of our locus of control and they can be explained by the following:
- Internal locus of control: A person believes that success and failure are within their personal control. This is specifically in regards to their ability to control the difficulty of the task (environment), not necessarily their ability to achieve it.
- External locus of control: A person believes that success, failure, difficulty and achievement are outside of the individual’s control. As previously stated, this is specifically in regards to their control over the difficulty of the task (environment), not necessarily their ability to achieve it.
For instance, let’s imagine two people approach the same situation of preparing for a job interview. A person with an internal locus of control may prepare for the interview with the mindset that if they nail the interview, comply with what is needed to be given the job; they will be rewarded with the job.
A person with an external locus of control preparing for that same interview may be preoccupied with factors that are not within their control, thus causing anxiety and helplessness. Beyond internal and external, there are qualifiers that describe the person’s perception of their ability. This will tell us how much perceived control the individual has over their personal abilities.
- Attributions of control (also called stable): This implies that a person perceives control over their ability to achieve a task. This can be paired with their internal or external locus of control to conclude that achievement is based on effort (Difficulty of task is mitigated by my ability, I control my ability with increased effort) or task difficulty (I do not have control over the difficulty of the task, but my achievement is likely if my ability meets the task difficulty).
- Attributions of no control (also called unstable): This implies that a person perceives no control over their ability to achieve any given task. This will be paired with a person’s internal or external view of the task to conclude, in this case, that achievement of a task is left up to their inherent ability (Task is controlled by me, but I cannot control my inherent ability), or chance/luck (Task is controlled by outside factors, and I have no control over my inherent ability to achieve it). The ladder leaves a person with the most impoverished feelings of personal control, self-efficacy, and self-esteem of all possible perceptions.
Locus of Control as an Outcome of Abuse or Parentification
With these ideas in mind, let’s focus on what can happen in a child’s life that grows up with abuse. As children, we are very dependent upon our environments. We depend on our moms and dads to provide many things for us (food, shelter, attention, etc.). As each of us grow up, we form our perspective on our environment as either ‘in control’ or ‘out of control’ environments based on these unique experiences. As stated above, when these needs are met, we tend to develop an internal locus of control – thus positive outcomes in mental health.
This can be applied to everything from job goals, job performance, motivation, relationships, who we select as partners, how we react when we are challenged in these relationships, how we relate to our children, how we approach stress in and of itself, and much more. If we believe that we have an ability to change these things, or that these things can be changed at all, it creates a mindset of empowerment that benefits our mental health.
In the event of abuse, our environment may seem chaotic and our ability to change it as a child appears extremely limited. Further issues arise when we reflect on parentification (the absence of proper child care and the unfair expectation of adult responsibilities placed upon the child). Recent research shows that emotional parentification (the parent-child role swap where the child provides emotional support for the parent) is associated with low self-esteem.
In my clinical experience, parentification and direct abuse correlates with external unstable LOC or external stable LOC. All of the above leave the individual feeling like the world is largely out of their control no matter what they do to prepare for it.
Even though a parentified child might appear to be commandeering a leadership role in their family, thus implying a perceived control over their environment, this research suggests that may not be the case. Children who grew up parentified may develop their own parenting beliefs that actually decrease their perceived power and control over their own children.
Stress can seem unwieldy whether or not you are internal or external. We are only human and it’s healthy to be aware of our limits. However if stress always seems out of your control, do you often reflect on elements of the stress that are out of your control?
To break the pattern it may be helpful to ask yourself, “can this situation be changed?” and if so, “what can I do to cause this needed change?”
- Ajake, U., Essien, M., & Omori, A. (2013). Child Abuse and Locus of Control among Senior Secondary School Students. Journal of Education and Human Development, 2(2), 36-41.
- Williams, K., & Francis, S. (2010). Parentification and Psychological Adjustment: Locus of Control as a Moderating Variable. Contemporary Family Therapy, 32(3), 231-237.
Garen Amirian is a licensed mental health counselor in New York who specializes in helping trauma survivors. He owns and operates his private practice in New York City. More information about Garen and his practice can be found at www.whatbringsyouintoday.com.
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