Parenting is no easy feat, and different parents have different parenting styles. But in the case of controlling parents, also referred to as authoritarian or helicopter parents, sometimes their overbearing nature can result in difficulties for the child that don't simply end once they grow up.
Here are some signs of a controlling parent, plus what to do if your parents' controlling behavior is negatively affecting you as an adult.
Signs of a controlling parent.
Interfering in nearly every aspect of the child's life.
One of the telltale signs of a controlling parent is interfering in their child's participation in things like group activities, team sports, and school projects, according to licensed marriage and family therapist Weena Cullins, LMFT. "This can begin as early as preschool and continue throughout college," she says.
"They want to influence the child and be part of their every decision," adds clinical psychologist Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D.
Criticizing any choice a child tries to make independently.
When these parents are displeased, they aren't afraid to hold back. For example, "a controlling parent may speak negatively about their child's style of dress unless their child agrees to wear clothing the parent picked out or purchased for them," Cullins explains.
High, truly unattainable standards.
Controlling parents put a lot of pressure on their children to live up to their expectations, which are often unreasonably high and unattainable, both Cullins and Tsabary note. Anything less than perfection is unacceptable or disappoints them.
When these high expectations aren't met, it's not uncommon for a controlling parent to withhold love as a form of manipulation. "Withholding love, affection, or approval when a child fails to meet their standard," Cullins says, is a sign of a controlling parent. For example, if a parent only ever hugs or praises their child when they get good grades, that's a form of conditional love—and a sign of a controlling parent.
Rigid (and unrealistic) rules.
Another way parents control their kids is by "creating an atmosphere where rigid rules and boundaries are enforced without explanation or flexibility to adjust when needed," says Cullins. Tsabary adds that this behavior is a way of projecting their own anxieties onto their child, noting they've learned "to manage their own internal anxieties through the mechanism of controlling others."
Lack of empathy and respect.
Controlling parents won't show their children empathy or even respect their autonomy. "If you are a child with such a parent," Tsabary adds, "it is often extremely challenging—as they often don't take hints for personal space and ways of being."
Unreasonably harsh punishment.
Cullins notes that punishments will also be used generously by a controlling parent, namely "creating and enforcing harsh punishments that don't fit their child's infraction."
Lack of appreciation for the child's individuality.
As the child is developing and maturing, the lack of understanding—and appreciation—for their "growing need for independence, autonomy, or privacy" will become apparent, Cullins says. Rather than accepting their child, a controlling parent will try everything they can to get their kid to be who they want them to be.
Expecting the child to act like a parent.
It's not uncommon to see a controlling parent "saddling a child with adult responsibilities, such as being the parent's caregiver," Cullins tells mbg. Tsabary says this may be their way of assuaging their own internal sense of helplessness.
Manipulation through gifts.
Controlling parents may manipulate and appease their children with money or gifts as a way to control their decisions and behaviors, according to Cullins. For example, they may offer to help pay for your car but only if you agree to attend a college closer to home.
Playing on guilt and/or shame.
As another form of psychological manipulation, Cullins says controlling parents may use guilt and/or shame to control their children. Think statements like, "You'll regret this when I'm dead," or "A good son/daughter wouldn't treat their parent like this."
How having a controlling parent can leach into adulthood.
Not only can having a controlling parent affect your development as a child and adolescent, but parents likely don't stop being controlling once their child has turned 18. Plenty will still interfere in their children's lives long into adulthood.
Fundamentally, controlling parents "stunt your own ability to be an autonomous human being, who has a right to make their own mistakes in life," Tsabary says. As Cullins adds, this behavior "prevents their children from developing the autonomy and independence needed to successfully launch into adulthood."
In addition to that, a parent who only offered conditional love and acceptance can "stunt their child’s emotional development and make it difficult to envision, develop, or sustain healthy romantic relationships," Cullins notes. "Children of controlling parents are more likely to become approval-seeking and need external validation." And that goes for romantic relationships but also in the workplace or with friends.
Oppositely, she adds, these kids can also grow up to become fiercely independent as a defense mechanism and become averse to conformity in adulthood.
How to deal with controlling parents:
1. Acknowledge the problem.
Dealing with a controlling parent or parents is incredibly difficult. They're your family, and they quite literally raised you. It's natural to feel guilty for being angry with them and even feel denial around whether they're truly "controlling."
Cullin says the first step in dealing with a controlling parent is developing awareness. "A child must be able to identify and distinguish between healthy parental expectations and controlling ones," she says. "If the parent's attitude, expectations, and behavior hinders the child's ability to develop the skills needed to become a self-sufficient adult with self-esteem, it's possible that there is a control issue."
2. Establish boundaries.
According to Tsabary, once you've realized a parent is controlling, "the best way to deal with them is through the establishment of strong, firm and consistent boundaries." This can feel scary, but she notes it's "exactly what the child needs to do in order to break free from this dysfunctional pattern."
"Choosing to respectfully make a different choice," Cullins says, "decline a parent’s offer, or not interact if it creates an uncomfortable situation for the child is an acceptable way to develop autonomy while remaining civil."
3. Get backup.
Lastly, Cullins adds that having a healthy community for support is essential. "Children of controlling parents may need trusted outsiders in their corner to act as a sounding board, provide validation and comfort, and even advocate on their behalf when needed," she says. To do this, she suggests enlisting the help of a family member or friend their parent respects.
If it's a battle you can't win on your own, family therapy may be something to consider.
4. Create space if necessary.
If setting boundaries in a loving way doesn't work, "then it is important to create emotional space and distance in another way," Tsabary says.
Ultimately, as an adult, it will be up to the child of the controlling parent to decide whether their parent's controlling behavior can be improved, reconciled, or tolerated. If not, Cullins and Tsabary agree the relationship may need to be modified to have more space.
The bottom line.
Having a controlling parent isn't easy, and the ramifications can be long-lasting. But once a child becomes aware of their parent's behavior and how it's negatively affecting them, it is possible to work on unlearning harmful stories of conditional love and low self-confidence.
They're your parent, and it's OK to feel guilty about being angry with them—but it's never OK to sacrifice your own autonomy. At the end of the day, you and your own self-assuredness will get you through the tensest moments with a controlling parent.
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Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.