Powerlessness - the role it plays, and how to help kids with it


I had an anthropology professor who contended that all human interactions are about power. I’m still not sure I buy that, but many of the interactions between students and teachers end up being about power and control more than the parties usually realize.


There are many young people who have a deep sense of powerlessness. It can come from having overbearing or even abusive adults in their lives, or even kids their own age who are. It can come from having others do things to them, and not being able to stop others from doing such things. But the source is often simply that they can’t seem to be able to feel the way they’d like to, or get their lives to turn out as they’d like. For example, they’re more anxious or depressed than they’d like to be, they can’t get the grades they’d like to, or they get in trouble more than they’d like to.  


So they try to compensate for this sense of powerlessness. Rudolph Dreikurs observed students misbehaving and concluded they typically have one of four “mistaken” goals when they do. One is Power and Control. The others are Attention, Revenge, and Avoidance of Failure. Talking back to adults, getting into arguments or even physical fights, or deliberately breaking school rules can all have the “mistaken” goal of power and control. So can smoking, drinking, or using drugs, or even suicide. Even joining a gang can, and often does have this mistaken goal, not to mention having the power of life and death by getting your hands on a gun.


It’s called a “mistaken” goal because in trying to demonstrate they have power and are in control of their lives instead of adults, they end up giving others chances to do things to them – things they won’t be able to keep others from doing once they decide to. For example, they give parents a chance to ground them, teachers a chance to give them detentions, administrators a chance to suspend them, or police a chance to arrest them. If they smoke, drink or use drugs to make their point, they can give away power and control over their lives if they become addicted, or overdose on the last two. In this way, they end up giving power and control away, leaving them with even less real power and control over their lives than they started out with. If they do too much, they can even give others the chance to incarcerate them and control what they do 24/7 for long periods of time, or even legally take their lives. Suicide can have the “mistaken” goal of power and control as well, but taking your own life robs you of any life to have power and control in and over.


I think it’s important for teachers (and parents) to realize that this deep sense of powerlessness can exist, and that kids may adopt the “mistaken” goal of power and control to compensate. It’s also important that teachers (and parents) not adopt that same “mistaken” goal of power and control themselves in reaction to what kids might do. It’s often too easy for teacher (and parents) to make themselves angry about what kids do when they have the “mistaken” goal of power and control, and adopt the same one themselves. They can even adopt the “mistaken” goal of Revenge. Doing so will just invite chronic and futile “power struggles” with such kids. They will engage in all manner of stupid, unhealthy, unacceptable, and self-defeating behaviors to prove they have power and are in control of themselves instead of adults.


Sometimes the job of a teacher involves “protecting kids from themselves”. One way to do that is to avoid getting angry and adopting the “mistaken” goals of power and control and provoking needless and futile power struggles with kids. They'll gladly and quickly go there if you invite them to. However, many teachers can be too quick to get angry with students, and do what my mentor called “go ballistic”. Mindset is the key to whether they are or not. For example, if a teachers has an authoritarian mindset, i.e. “These kids have to do what I tell them to”, they’ll be more likely to go ballistic than someone who instead accepts that “Kids can do whatever they want”, which by the way is true.


You can read about how to gain and have control over your emotional thermostat to help avoid needless and futile power struggles with students at:



This deep sense of powerlessness is why one of the first things I do with troubled and troublesome students is to promise to teach them how to have REAL power and control in and over their lives. I start by telling them what REAL power is NOT. Real power is NOT getting angry. Anger gives people a false sense of power. It’s not yelling, cussing, telling others what to do, or threatening them. Anyone can do that, but it rarely works. It’s not doing things others tell you not to. All these things just invite teachers, administrators and even sometimes police into their lives, and just give these people opportunities to do things to students that they otherwise wouldn’t have –things that students won’t be able to stop them from doing. It’s therefore a way to actually give power and control over their lives away.

Real power is being able to:

1)      choose whether they’re going to get upset or not.

2)      to feel the way they want to about themselves

3)      feel as good as possible regardless of what happens, or others say or do

4)      keep others out of their heads

5)      defend themselves against those who have been living in there much too long rent free

6)      have their lives turn out the way they’d like as much as possible.


One of the most empowering things we can do for kids is to teach them to have an internal locus of control. Like most other people, most kids have an external locus of control. They wrongly see what happens, and what others say and do as the cause of how they feel. This puts them at the mercy of what others say and do, and what happens. It typically causes them to end up feeling worse than they need to, for longer than necessary. It also means others and their life have to change for  the better for them to feel better. What if they don’t?  All of this contributes greatly to their sense of powerlessness.

But it’s really what they choose to think about what happens, or what others say and do that really determines how they feel. They always have a host of cognitive choices they make all the time that really determine how they feel about anything, including themselves. We all do. They make those choices all the time, usually without realizing they are because they make them so automatically because of prior practice and rehearsal. That’s true for most people. The way they make such cognitive choices is understandable, given that they’re human, and kids on top of it, and what they’ve been through. But they be taught and learn to make them differently and better.


These choices are the source of their REAL power and control in and over their lives. The reason is that no one can technically make those choices for them, unless they let others. Kids let others do that all the time, and so do most people, and that’s perfectly understandable. However, they can learn to stop doing that, and learn instead to retain control over such choices for themselves. They can do that by simply always reminding themselves:

1)      It’s my choice how I look at things

2)      It’s my choice what meaning I attach to what happens

3)      It’s my choice what I focus on

4)      It’s my choice what I compare things to

5)      It’s my choice what I remember about the past

6)      It’s my choice what I imagine will happen in the future

7)      It’s my choice what I expect of myself, others and life

8)      It’s my choice how much importance I attach to what does happen

And because it’s really the way they make such choices that determines how they feel, it’s also true that:

It’s my choice how I want to feel, about myself or anything else


Teaching students to have an internal locus of control is a big part of what I call Mental and Emotional Karate. It’s what I call an inside-out approach to the problem of bullying – teaching kids to defend themselves against verbal or cyber attacks like we teach kids to defend themselves against physical attack in real karate classes. I give them a response to any such attacks:

“You can think, feel and say whatever you want about me, or to me. But it’s MY choice how I look at myself, and how I feel about myself. And you don’t get to make those choices for me, unless I let you. And I choose not to.”

This is like an adult version of “I’m rubber, you’re glue. What you say bounces off me, and sticks to you”


When I work with kids who are being “bullied”, I usually start by asking them “What do you think they get out of doing this to you? When they know they can get a rise out of you whenever they want to, what does that suggest to them that they have over you?” It doesn’t take them long to answer either “Power” or “Control”. Then I ask them, “How would you like me to teach you how to take that power and control away from them, and keep it for yourself?” That always gets a smile.

One of the common mistaken goals of those who bully others is typically Power and Control. This often stems from a deep sense of powerlessness. It’s fairly common for those who “bully” others to have been “bullied” themselves, often by adults in their lives. It not uncommon for them to struggle to have their lives be the way they want them to be. So what they do often stems from a sense of powerlessness. If we empower them by teaching them to have an internal locus, we’ll typically see their bullying behavior diminish or stop altogether.


Another part of developing an internal locus of control is learning and reminding themselves of what they do and don’t control in their lives. Many people think, talk and act like they control others. The truth is that none of us really controls what others think, feel, say or do. We only control what we do. When people try to control what they don’t, like what others think, feel, say and do, their lives will feel more out of control.  The more they focus on and try to control what they think, feel, say and do, the more in control of their lives they’ll feel.


If teachers teach their students to have an internal locus of control, it will benefit teachers mental health immensely. Most teachers have an external locus of control and wrongly see students and what happens in their classrooms as the cause of any stress they feel, or anger and other feelings they generate. That puts them at the mercy of students and what does happens. Learning to have an internal locus of control is the simplest and most effective ways for teachers to gain control over their emotions and emotional destiny, and to reduce their stress.

Teachers can often start to feel powerless to some degree, especially when they have students who challenge them with behavioral issues. They often overcompensate in an attempt to regain control, but being more controlling often simply invites more the behavior they didn't like in the first place, and can alienate students they previously got along with. Developing an internal locus of control is a way to gain real and important control. Gaining control over our emotional thermostats puts us in the best possible mental and emotional place to problem solve effectively and assert ourselves instead of becoming aggressive toward students in some way. Dr. Robert Marzano calls this having "emotional objectivity" - which I've always taken to mean not letting your emotions contaminate your judgment or dictate your actions. That happens too often in classrooms and schools.


Plus, imagine a school were everyone has an internal locus of control - and doesn't always blame others and what happens for how they feel. Conflicts occur in large part because people see others as the cause of how they feel, and blame them for it. This often leads to the mistaken goal of revenge, and all kinds of unacceptable and self-defeating behavior intended to achieve it. If everyone develops an internal locus of control, it will reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of conflicts, and make a school a much nicer place to teach and learn in. 

One of the statements taught to cardiac rehab patients is "No one upsets me, I upset myself". It summarizes the philosophy of someone with an internal locus of control. Imagine an entire school full of teachers and students who believe and remind themselves "No one upsets me, I upset myself". And, "It's my choice how I want to feel". Teach teachers and students to keep their emotional thermostats turned down, and to turn them down quickly when they go up, and there will be a lot less needless anger and other emotions, and a lot less conflicts and other behavior teachers and schools don't like. If students know how to get and stay in a much better mental and emotional place, you will see good "character" traits start to manifest themselves. 


Learning to have an internal locus of control is Tool #3 of The Mental and Emotional Tool Kit I believe we should give all students, especially the most troubled and troublesome. You can read about how to develop an internal locus of control, and teach kids to at:


The other "tools" include:

1) A THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat model that helps them see the important role of emotion in everyday life, and the important connections between thoughts, feelings and actions.

2) Learning to have Uncondtional Self and Other Acceptance (USA, UOA)

3) Recognizing irrational thinking in themselves and others

4) Knowing how to correct irrational thinking, and doing it automatically in their minds, like grammar check on a computer

5) Having a step-by-step approach to troublesome life events

6) Asserting themselvve with I Messages

7) Recognizing when they and others have mistaken goals

8) Having a simple but effective non-judgmental way to evaluate their thoughts, feelings and actions

9) Knowing why change is hard, and what it takes 

You can read about the other nine “tools” at:




05.07.2016 19:01

Diane Fawcett

So glad to see others believing the same as I do regarding student misbehavior stemming from powerlessness. Good suggestions on how to help these students.

25.06.2016 09:28

Lorna Hawthorn

Fantastically simple explanation of self regulation.