Having a sense of autonomy and control is essential to our health and well-being1. However, in the last two decades, there has been a disturbing decrease in sense of control among college students2. They believe their lives are controlled by forces outside of themselves. Having controlling mothers or fathers is, at least in part, a prevalent source of such helplessness.
Types of Parental Control
There are two types of parental control – behavioral control and psychological control.
Behavioral control refers to supervising and managing children’s behavior. These parents discipline their kids’ behavior, monitor their whereabouts, and oversee their social life3. Behavioral control is intended to regulate children’s behaviors to conform to the prevailing family or social norms.
Autonomy and regulation are both essential in a child’s development. Autonomy allows a child to develop a separate identify away from their parents. This process of individuation is particularly important during adolescence when teenagers are getting prepared for adulthood4.
At the same time, parents need to provide adequate structure for the child to learn to inhibit disruptive behavior and engage in socially acceptable behavior5. Structure and guidance in behavior are necessary to facilitate favorable personality development.
Behavioral control, to a certain extend, is paramount in a child’s healthy development. It aims to monitor, teach and regulate appropriate behavior.
However, when parents go overboard and control every minute details of their children’s behavior, they become controlling parents6.
Psychological control refers to intruding into children’s emotional and psychological development. Controlling parents are nonresponsive to their children’s emotional and psychological needs. They constrain, invalidate, and manipulate the kids’ psychological experience. They also stifle independent expression of emotions7.
These controlling parents manipulate children’s feelings, thoughts or ideas through the parent-child relationship using guilt, love withdrawal, showing disappointment, disapproval and shaming8. In addition, they want to keep their kids emotionally dependent on them9.
Psychologically controlling parents are experienced by their children as being intrusive, overprotective, possessive, directive, and controlling through guilt10.
Ways of Controlling
Children can experience parental control differently depending on what measures controlling parents use. Here are two orientations of controlling practice.
Psychological control is often exerted through subtle, non-verbal cues. These parents appeal primarily to forces and regulations that reside within the child, such as when parents activate feelings of shame and guilt.
Because the control is more internal, covert and nonobvious, most psychological control measures are internally controlling parenting practices.
Externally controlling parenting is done in an open and overt fashion. Shouting, hitting, punishing and rewarding are the common strategies used to coerce children with external contingencies.
Psychological control is not always internally controlling. Some parents engage in personal attacks or erratic emotional behavior such as alternating between caring and attacking towards their children.
Signs of Controlling Parents
Whether a parent is controlling depends on a combination of several factors11:
- type of control (behavioral vs psychological)
- way of control (internally controlling vs externally controlling)
- level of control (moderate vs high)
- temperament of the child (does the child perceive them as controlling)
Despite the complexities, there are some parenting practices that are considered controlling “on average”.
Here are some common signs of controlling parents:
- Demand blind obedience and conformity.
- Do not allow children to participate in or question the parents’ decisions.
- Do not let their child make their own decisions.
- Do not encourage choice or independence.
- Dictate every aspect of the child’s life.
- “Help” the child without being asked.
- Use reasons such as “because I said so” to discipline.
- Believe children should be seen, but not heard.
- Manipulate and exploit the parent–child bond, through such as guilt induction or love withdrawal.
- Discipline through punishment and coercion.
- Use negative, affect-laden expressions and criticisms, such as disappointment and shame.
Psychological Effects of Controlling Parenting
Psychologists have found that different controlling factors can cause different impacts in children, especially adolescents.
Lack of behavioral control has long been associated with behavioral problems. These kids act out more and are less capable of inhibiting disruptive behavior.
Moderate amount of behavioral regulation and monitoring are good for children. Enforcing boundaries and monitoring are associated with positive outcomes such as less acting out and better academic performance12.
But when the control is at a high level, the negative impact on children’s development can be long-lasting7 whether it’s behavioral or psychological. At high levels of behavioral or psychologically control, adolescents feel that they are incompetent and they don’t matter6.
Parents who are very behaviorally controlling undermine their children’s confidence in their abilities. Excessive parental assistance during tasks and interrupting a child’s problem-solving communicate doubt regarding the child’s competencies. As a result, these children suffer from lower self-esteem. They are less self-regulated, higher in acting out, and lower in academic achievement13,14.
Many psychologists believe that psychological control is particularly damaging to a child. The insidiously manipulative tactics used by internally a controlling father or mother can induce feelings of undue loyalty towards parents to comply with their authority.
These children’s compliance is driven by a desire to avoid feeling guilty or losing the parents’ love11. So when they are rejected by the parents, they feel resentment. This mixture of ambiguous and conflicting feelings towards parents creates a sense of inner tension. Children of psychologically controlling parents are more prone to suffer from low self-esteem, and mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression15, and antisocial behavior16.
On the other hand, externally controlling parents have different impacts on their children. Kids model their behavior after their parents’ behavior. Externally controlled children frequently witness their parents engaging in overt aggressive and controlling behaviors. They are more prone to physical aggression towards others17. They are more likely to become bullies or victims of bullying. They also tend to pass this type of harsh parenting to the next generation18.
How To Deal With Controlling Parents
“Why are my parents trying to control my life?”
If you’re an unfortunate child who has controlling parents, I sympathize.
It is hard for children or teenagers to deal with controlling parenting on their own because they are completely relying on their parents. Asking for counselling at school or requesting to see a therapist can provide the support to get through this.
Some kids also use negotiation as a more autonomous way of coping19.
If you were or have been a controlling parent, the best thing to do for your child is to seek professional help for yourself. Children usually employ one of two non-autonomous ways of coping – compulsive compliance and oppositional defiance. Neither one is good for your child.
If you’re a grownup, having a controlling parent can make you feel disrespected16. Unfortunately, research shows that controlling parenting behavior is unlikely to change over time20. If you suffer from depressive or anxiety symptoms, seek professional help as soon as possible. When looking for therapeutic help, look for one who is proficient in relational therapy21 and in dealing with controlling parent issues.
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