Having a sense of autonomy and control is essential to our identity, effectiveness, relationships, health and well-being1. However, over the last two decades, there has been a disturbing decrease in sense of personal control among college students2. These students believe that their lives are controlled by forces outside themselves, and having controlling parents is, at least in part, a prevalent source of such helplessness.
Behavior Control vs Psychological Control
Parental control can come in two forms – behavioral control and psychological control.
Behavioral control refers to the regulation, supervision and management of the child’s behavior. Parents micro-manage their kids’ behavior, monitor their whereabouts, and intrude on their social life. Behavioral control is usually accomplished using discipline or monitoring3.
Psychological control refers to intrusion to the children’s emotional and psychological development. A psychologically controlling parent value blind obedience and conformity, and disapprove independence and autonomy. Control is usually achieved through coercive methods. These parents are also dictatorial when it comes to the child’s behavior. They feel the need to control every aspect of the child’s life. They also like to keep the child emotionally dependent on them4.
Causes of Behaviorally Controlling Parent
Behavioral control can be found in families with overprotective parents. Even though these families tend to live in low-risk environments, overprotective parents who fear for their offspring’s safety deny children activities that are perceived as risky or too much responsibility5.
Pressure and stress are generally related to being behaviorally controlling in parenting6. The stressful perception of threat, such as scarce resources and instability, is a strong predictor of controlling parenting7.
Autonomy support, which is the exact opposite of controlling, requires the parents to take the child’s perspective and allow for independent problem solving. Such an approach requires time and psychological availability, which are reduced when a controlling mother or father is under stress.
For instance, an overprotective parent who is stressed about the child’s academic achievement monitors the child’s homework, nags about studying, and demands good grades. This controlling parenting style reduces the child’s motivation. Amotivation in turn leads to efven lower performance in school, and so the parent becomes more stressed and the cycle repeats.
Causes of Psychologically Controlling Parent
Psychological control, on the other hand, is usually found in authoritarian households. Researchers have found that parents who are psychologically controlling have a hard time taking children’s perspectives and making decisions that are in the children’s best interests8.
For example, a psychologically controlling mother not only wants her kids to excel academically, but she also wants them to like the same subjects and choose the same major the parent wants. She uses her kids to fulfill her own egoistic needs or an unfulfilled life goal. So she cannot see her children for who they are because to her, they are not people in their own rights. Instead, she believes the kids are part of the mother’s identity.
Signs of Controlling Parents
Here are some signs of controlling parents who are overprotective:
- Do not let children make their own decisions.
- Do not encourage choice or independence.
- Do not let kids walk to school or play outside on their own in a safe neighborhood.
- “Help” kids with their homework without being asked.
- Monitor progress in school work everyday to make sure it’s complete.
Here are the signs of psychologically controlling parents:
- Demand blind obedience and compliance.
- Do not allow children to participate in or question the parents’ decisions.
- Use reasons such as “because I said so” to discipline.
- Believe children should be seen, but not heard.
- Control through some of the following strategies:
- manipulation and exploitation of the parent–child bond, such as guilt induction or love withdrawal.
- coercive disciplinary methods and excessive personal control.
- negative, affect-laden expressions and criticisms, such as disappointment and shame.
In general, moderate amount of behavioral regulation and monitoring are good for children. These boundaries and monitoring are associated with positive outcomes such as better academic performance. However, when parents become overprotective, the parenting becomes controlling.
Controlling parenting, whether behavioral or psychological, has long-lasting negative impacts on children’s development9.
Parents who are 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 academic achievement10,11.
Children of strict parents are more likely to suffer from mental health issues. Behavioral control is associated with externalizing problems such as aggression while psychological control is associated with internalizing problems such as anxiety, depression12, and antisocial behavior13.
How To Deal With Controlling Parents
It is hard for children or teenagers to deal with controlling parenting on their own because they are completely relying on their parents. Children usually employ one of two non-autonomous ways of coping – compulsive compliance and oppositional defiance. Some kids use negotiation as a more autonomous way of coping14.
If you were or have been a controlling parent, the best thing to do for your child is to seek professional help for yourself.
If you’re a grownup, having a controlling parent can make you feel disrespected13. It’s likely that you suffer from depressive or anxiety symptoms, which need professional help. When looking for therapeutic help, look for one who is proficient in relational therapy15 and in dealing with controlling parents issues.
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- 13.Barber BK, Xia M, Olsen JA, McNeely CA, Bose K. Feeling disrespected by parents: Refining the measurement and understanding of psychological control. Journal of Adolescence. Published online April 2012:273-287. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2011.10.010
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