Do your parents still meddle in your daily life? Perhaps your mum’s always showing her disapproval – chiming in on what you should or shouldn’t wear or who you should be spending your time with… Or maybe your dad’s the controlling one. He’s sure that you chose the wrong career and hellbent on reminding you every time you see him. He makes it clear you’ll never be able to live up to his successes…
Controlling parenting – otherwise known as authoritarian parenting – is a style of parenting in which one (sometimes both) parents keep close tabs on their children’s lives, over-involving themselves where they can.
Parents like this tend to be overly focused on their own needs rather than the needs of the child. And while some parents may get over this behaviour as the child grows up, some never “drop the rope” and it becomes a pattern of behaviour that continues well into adulthood.
We all need guidance and support growing up – but control is something very different. When we grow up with controlling or overly-involved parents, we’re denied the space we need to develop a healthy sense of self. And this can have damaging consequences. We might struggle to trust our own abilities and fail to develop a healthy level of dependence. Or, if we were heavily criticised, we might grow up feeling inadequate in some way and struggle to assert ourselves and advocate for our own needs.
What are the signs of controlling parents in adulthood?
The relationship is boundary-less – you have little privacy and your parent/s seem to have a say in almost everything you do. It feels like you can’t catch a break and you feel smothered. Perhaps your mum calls you multiple times a day or there’s the expectation that you spend every Sunday together as a family – and there are consequences if you don’t.
You feel guilty – guilt-tripping is a form of manipulation. Maybe they’re always reminding you of everything they’ve given you or you get punished with the silent treatment on the rare occasions that you decide to turn plans down. They’ve filled you with a sense of obligation to be at their beck and call.
They offer you unsolicited advice – whether it’s the smaller stuff like how you wear your hair or the more important things like who you date or how you choose to bring up your kids, controlling parents are likely to offer you advice without much thought as to whether it’s helpful or necessary.
You feel like they don’t “get” you – they are more concerned with moulding you into who they want you to be rather than getting to know who you actually are.
You feel afraid of them – your stomach churns when you see their name pop up on your phone or you leave meetups/conversations feeling worse off/drained.
They control you through financial rewards – maybe they buy you expensive presents or they bail you out when you’re in a tight spot, but you’re left with the sense that they always expect something in return.
Controlling parents in adulthood and anxiety – what’s the link?
If you grew up with controlling parents, you may find that you struggle with anxiety as an adult. This is because controlling behaviour can lead to low self-esteem and a lack of trust in ourselves and our abilities. You may have also developed a harsh inner critic and have a tendency to beat yourself up when things don’t go to plan. This is because as children, we internalise the voices of those around us – so our parents’ voices can end up becoming our inner monologue.
It’s possible that this may have had a knock-on effect on your relationships too. You might find that you choose partners who are demanding and dominating or who can’t be there for you in the way you’d like them to.
The most important thing to remember is that things don’t have to stay this way. As an adult now, you have the power and autonomy to release the chains of your past and take back control over your life.
How to overcome controlling parents
Take ownership over your life – start discovering who the real you is. Therapy is a great place to start this process. What are your values, passions and goals? What lights you up? It can help to think back to the things that you loved doing as a child before you were pushed in a different direction.
Establish your boundaries – this can take some work, especially if you grew up in a household that had very little boundaries. Again, a therapist can support you in identifying and setting boundaries.
Clearly communicate your needs to your parents – asserting yourself can feel scary at first, especially if you’ve historically always taken a backseat. Be clear what you ask for e.g.“Next time, I will need you to let me know in advance before showing up at my home”.
Don’t take their handouts, no matter how tempting – if your parents maintain some control over you financially, try and slowly break away from this. Prove to them that you are more than capable of standing on your own two feet.
Decide how and when you see them – how often do you want to see them? Once a week? Once a month? Once every few months? Decide what works for you and stick to it.
It’s important to remember that controlling parenting doesn’t always come from a bad place. This way of behaving may have been modelled to your parents when they were growing up. Or it may be a coping mechanism for their own anxiety and wanting the best for you. But as an adult now, this is your chance to break the pattern. And in doing that, you won’t just be freeing yourself – you’ll be freeing all the generations to come too.