Controlling parents attempt to dictate nearly every aspect of their child’s life, demand obedience, and offer little privacy. These behaviors can strongly impact a child’s development, including how they approach relationships, make decisions, and handle problems. Recognizing the signs of controlling parents is important when learning how to deal with them in adulthood.
10 Signs of Controlling Parents
Controlling parents, also known as snowplow parents, dictate their child’s environment by attempting to remove any obstacles, which can be detrimental to developmental skills. Signs of controlling parents, such as harsh punishment or providing little privacy, can be misconstrued as normal if these behaviors have occurred for generations. Sometimes these behaviors come from love and concern because the parents want to shield the child from pain. Regardless of intent, controlling, possessive, and over-involved parenting can have negative consequences.
Here are ten signs of controlling parents:
- Interfering in everything: Controlling parents try to dictate a child’s academic decisions, career, and social life.
- Use of manipulation tactics: Overly possessive parents may use manipulation to control their children. For example, reminding children they are obligated to their parents because of “all they have done for you.”
- Conditional love: Another sign of a controlling parent is conditional love. Love is not given freely or without expectation from controlling parents. An example would be if the child only receives affection or praise when getting straight As at school.
- Demanding obedience: In a house with controlling parents, there will be rigid, unrealistic rules that cannot be questioned.
- Harsh punishments that do not align with the offense: Any minor infractions result in total loss of privileges, electronics, or excessive grounding.
- Lack of empathy and respect: Controlling parents may fail to provide empathy or feedback for accomplishments. They may say, “It’s not that big of a deal,” or “You could have done better.”
- Lack of appreciation for individuality: Children or grown children do not have space to form their viewpoints, beliefs, sense of style, aspirations, and more.
- Eliminating or providing little privacy: An overbearing parent expects every aspect of a child’s life to be shared.
- Criticizing or having an unsolicited opinion about independent choices: To a controlling parent, every decision their child makes is wrong unless they agree, even if the choice does not impact them.
- Unattainable or perfectionist standards: Many overbearing parents pressure their children to be overachievers in academics, sports or club involvement, volunteering, and social or family obligations.
Types of Parental Control
Different types of parental control directly impact children, adolescents, and adults, affecting their emotional regulation and general well-being as they age. As such, utilizing age-appropriate techniques to encourage autonomy, build problem-solving skills, and increase the ability to manage stress is essential.
Three types of parental control are:
- Behavioral control: Behavioral control refers to parental efforts to regulate and monitor a child’s behavior. Inappropriate behavioral control can limit opportunities to build autonomy and impact emotional and social development.1
- Psychological control: This includes manipulation tactics used to control or pressure children to comply, such as instilling guilt or shame, withdrawal of affection, emotional blackmail, and invalidating feelings.2
- Overparenting: Overparenting refers to high levels of warmth, support, and control. The dynamic creates low levels of autonomy due to parental over-involvement.3
Effects of Having Controlling Parents
Controlling or invasive behaviors from parents can result in a loss of autonomy or control over one’s life. A child may feel trapped by an inability to make individual choices, overwhelmed by pressure to perform at unrealistic standards, or angered by the constant intrusiveness in their life. Unfortunately, these feelings can carry over into adulthood.
The psychological effects of controlling parenting can have negative, long-lasting impacts on emotional well-being and mental health. Studies indicate that children and adults can experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, and elevated stress. If little or no relief is obtained, these mental health disorders can worsen over time.
Effects of Controlling Parents on Children
A controlling parent often acts out of concern for their child’s well-being. However, this inhibits children from making decisions, solving problems, and learning to cope with emotions and change. Children may feel pressured to conform to parental authority, resulting in emotional insecurity and dependence that can follow them into adulthood.4
Possible effects of controlling parenting on a child include:
- Childhood anxiety
- Childhood depression
- Emotional insecurity
- Aggressive behavior
- Negative self-concept
- Low self-esteem
- Poor emotional regulation
- Limited ability to recognize emotions
- Maladaptive coping skills
Effects of Controlling Parents on Adults
Even though the adult may be living independently, the effects of having controlling parents can remain or be exacerbated as life presents challenging situations. This can result in unhealthy relationships, low-self esteem, and decreased stress tolerance. Another complication of having controlling parents is related to the shift in family dynamics. Emerging adults (ages 18-29) residing at or returning home may engage in antisocial or withdrawn behavior to cope with restricted freedom, which can negatively impact current or future relationships.2
Possible effects of controlling parenting in adulthood include:2,5
- Anxiety disorders
- Adjustment issues
- Engaging in risky behaviors
- Increased substance use
- Unhealthy relationships
- Low self-esteem and self-efficacy
- Low tolerance for stressful situations
- Poor boundaries
How to Deal With Controlling Parents in Adulthood
Learning to cope with controlling parents takes time, patience, and consistency. Making healthy changes for your emotional well-being is possible by setting realistic expectations and remembering why you employ these coping strategies.
Below are tips for dealing with controlling parents:
Acknowledge & Accept the Problem
Recognizing controlling parental behaviors by educating yourself about over-involved parents can provide relief and empower you to make changes. Accept that you cannot make your parents change. However, you can control your reactions, boundaries, and relationship with them.
Setting boundaries with parents is healthy, especially with overbearing mothers and fathers. Doing so offers an opportunity to reinforce that you will not tolerate certain behaviors for your emotional well-being. A crucial part of setting boundaries is following through with consequences if one is violated.
Build a Support System
Connecting with others who have experienced similar issues can provide comfort and alleviate feelings of loneliness. Additionally, a healthy support system of individuals you trust encourages you to enforce your boundaries.
Taking a break or creating space from controlling parents is a healthy coping skill. This might include taking a walk, limiting visits or phone calls, or moving into your own place. Take time to process your emotions and reflect on your desires and boundaries without interference from your parents.
Choose Your Battles
Confronting and defending every offense can be exhausting. Find a balance between when to address issues and when to let them slide. This does not mean you have to agree with your controlling parents. Instead, it can be a form of self-preservation.
Utilize Healthy Communication Skills
Using “I” statements diffuses defensive responses and allows your parents to listen. Instead of saying, “You made me feel this way,” try saying, “I felt this way when…” Also, set boundaries about communication with your parents, such as no yelling, name-calling, or bringing up past events.
Increase Emotional Wellness
Improving your self-esteem can provide empowerment and reassurance that you are making healthy choices. It can also aid in discovering and establishing your true self.
There is no obligation to share every detail of your life with your parents. It is OK to limit what you disclose to avoid unsolicited advice, berating of choices, or negative feedback. This will provide the desired level of privacy while maintaining a relationship.
Know Your limits
Similar to setting boundaries, focus on being aware of when you have endured enough and having an exit strategy ready. Giving yourself permission to leave or step away helps reinforce that your feelings and self-worth are important.
When to Seek Professional Help
If you are struggling to cope or deal with controlling parents, therapy provides a safe space to gain the knowledge and insight needed. Individual, group, or family therapy offers opportunities to learn more about communication skills, coping skills, setting boundaries, developing healthy relationships, and increasing emotional distress tolerance. Choosing a therapist can seem like a daunting decision, but there are resources available to help. You might start your search on an online therapist directory where you can compare expertise, cost, location, and more.
Acknowledging our struggles can be difficult, but we do not have to struggle alone or in silence. There is strength in reaching out for help. Talking to a therapist, trusted friend or family member, or support group can help alleviate struggles associated with controlling parents. Remember, your pain is valid and worthy of healing.