Controlling parents can significantly impact their children, even into adulthood. As children grow into adults and work to establish independence, overly controlling parents may struggle with letting go and continue to impose their will in harmful ways. Recognizing the signs of a controlling parent-child relationship is important to set healthy boundaries.
Though loving and wanting the best for their children, controlling parents tend to be very critical, pressure their children to meet extremely high expectations, and allow little freedom to nurture independence. This stems from the parent’s own insecurities and desire for status or validation through their child’s accomplishments.
Common signs of a controlling parent
Controlling parents often have unrealistically high expectations and are overly critical of any shortcomings, which can severely damage a child’s self-esteem. This criticism extends into adulthood, with comments on the adult child’s appearance, career, relationships, lifestyle choices, and overall decisions. The parent communicates that the child is inadequate and tries to impose “improvements.”
Controlling parents are masters at using guilt to manipulate their children. They bring up sacrifices they made as parents, compare their child negatively to others, and imply the child is selfish or ungrateful if they do not comply with the parent’s demands. This inflicts tremendous emotional damage.
Money is a powerful tool for controlling parents to impose control, even over adult children. A parent may financially support an adult child but threaten to withdraw support if the child does not obey their rules. Or they may sabotage their child’s financial independence by interfering with education or career decisions to keep the child dependent.
A parent may try to achieve their own unfulfilled ambitions through their child’s accomplishments. This can manifest as micromanaging every aspect of their child’s life to fit the parent’s goals rather than supporting the adult child’s hopes and dreams. The message is that the child’s only value is fulfilling the parent’s agenda.
Isolation from others
Controlling parents often see other influences as threats to their authority over the child. They may discourage relationships with extended family, friends, or romantic partners. A parent may claim outsiders “don’t understand you as I do” or otherwise sow doubts. Isolation worsens over time.
A controlling parent may struggle to celebrate their adult child’s accomplishments and positive traits. Even major milestones are met with criticism for what the child “should” have done. Or the parent may take credit for victories as a result of their “great parenting,” dismissing the child’s efforts. This continually erodes self-confidence.
Overcoming a controlling parent
Having a controlling parent can severely damage wellbeing and self-identity. However, the adult child can reclaim their life. Steps toward overcoming a controlling parent include:
Set firm boundaries
Be specific. Make clear what behaviors you will no longer tolerate and what information you will not share if boundaries are violated. Follow through on consequences when boundaries are crossed.
Seek supportive relationships
Spend more time with people who appreciate you for who you are. Their care and validation can help counteract the criticism layered on by controlling parents.
When speaking with a controlling parent, only discuss surface-level topics. Do not open up about anything vulnerable like struggles or relationships, as this information will likely be used against you.
Speaking to a mental health professional can help uncover unhealthy dynamics at play. They can also equip you with healthy coping strategies as you navigate setting boundaries.
The impact of controlling parents manifests differently in each adult child. But healing is possible. By establishing physical and emotional boundaries, finding community support, and seeking counseling, an adult child can break free and build self-confidence.