How should adults deal with their overbearing parents

Do your parents continue to interfere with your life even after you’ve grown up and have children of your own?

Obey me always

Does your mom constantly provide unsolicited advice on how to raise your children?  Do you have memories of your dad yelling at you for missing that free throw in your basketball game, which could have won the championship? Does your mom/dad have criticisms about the upkeep of your home and your decorative style? If yes, you may be the child of a controlling parent.

Many can dismiss these scenarios as behaviours of an overbearing parent and leave it at that. But to do this only places judgement and doesn’t provide viable solutions to these frequent challenges you may face. Developing a better understanding for why your parent behaves the way he or she does can help you find compassion and interact with him or her in a more meaningful way. Parents, overall, want the best for their children. But when does wanting the best for your children start to become detrimental to their wellbeing?

The ways in which parents control

Withholding love and affection is one type of behaviour; it can be a form of control. If your parents give you the cold shoulder when you decide you want to move to another city for better career prospects rather than living in the same city as them, this is a form of seeking control over your life. In my own work with clients, I have seen these children struggle with feelings of guilt. When parents withhold love and affection from their children to try and influence their behaviour, these children often feel guilty for their own attempts to develop autonomy and independence. Children will do things for the sake of appeasing their parent’s needs. If this is a consistent pattern, children will grow into adults who struggle with low self-esteem. A study published in 2013 in the Journal of Child and Family Studies show that college students who have parents that are controlling indicate higher levels of depression and less satisfaction in life.

Bullying is another thing that is exhibited by controlling parents. Your mom may talk to your wife about how she treats you within your own marriage; your dad may minimise your feelings and opinions about various topics to persuade you to agree with his point of view. A study published in 2015 in Emerging Adulthood showed that the detrimental effects of controlling parenting styles are still present, regardless of the level of warmth a parent provides to their children.

Why do parents seek to control their children

So what is the driving force behind these frustrating behaviours? Anxiety is one probable cause. Individuals who struggle with anxiety often try to control things within their environment in order to feel a sense of control within themselves. The problem with this is that these individuals end up alienating the people around them. Fear could also be a potential reason why your mom or dad is overbearing. Parents sometimes see themselves in you, catching glimpses of their own personalities and challenges as they watch you live your life. They may be fearful of you making the very same mistakes they did at some point. Mental illness is also an area to consider. There have been times through my work with individuals where it was clear that their parents struggled with mental illness, which has gone untreated throughout their life. How challenging and fearful life must have been for these parents!

What should you do

So with all this information, what does a person do to manage this? As a therapist, it’s pretty obvious that I’m going to suggest “communication” as a way to manage this issue. Have you taken the time to clearly state to your parent what your needs are? If not, it’s time to consider having that awkward conversation with your mother, asking her to stop giving you unsolicited advice about what you should do within your marriage.

A good way to approach this conversation is to use what I call “The Sandwich Method” of communication. The following is an example: “Mom, I know you’re concerned about how my husband and I parent our children, but I would appreciate it if you can stop providing us with advice unless we ask for it. I love you very much for always being concerned for us because I know you want what’s best for our family.” Do you see what I just did? Positive statement, introduction of a dilemma with a proposed solution, and ending with another positive statement. Using this method of communication acknowledges the strengths the person has, but also provides a clear statement of what you want from that person in a non-threatening manner.

Unless you create boundaries, your parents may continue to bully you into submission
Unless you create boundaries, your parents may continue to bully you into submission

So perhaps you’re thinking right now, “I’ve talked to my mom about this already, and she still does the same thing.” My next suggestion is to develop strong boundaries. Maintaining boundaries with people in general is difficult if you are not used to doing them. I’ve heard clients say, “I don’t want to be mean.” Being clear about your needs and informing someone that they are stepping over your personal boundary is not mean; it’s assertive. You are also acknowledging that you deserve to be treated in a manner that is respectful of who you are and what you want in life. Keep in mind, though, that you still want to be respectful to the other person. Aggressive behaviour is not the same as assertiveness, nor is it respectful. Yelling and name calling only adds to the already tense relationship between you and your parents. My earlier example of communication with parents is one way of developing a boundary.

If nothing else works then another way to set a boundary is by censoring the topics you share with your parents. The bottom line is if you’ve already spoken to your parents about their behaviour and they still try to control your life, it’s up to you to create that boundary for yourself. You can’t force people to change, but you can certainly change things about yourself. So if you know that child rearing is a hot button topic that gets you and your parents started into a downward spiral of judgment, guilt and frustration, avoid the topic and talk about the last movie you saw or the new restaurant you enjoyed.

If you’ve made a point to set those boundaries, look for the times that they have respected those wishes. It’s a lot easier to notice the annoying moments and tense exchanges, but how would you know if there was a moment when your mom held back a negative comment? Are there times you have shared something personal with your dad, expecting him to have a critical reply but instead he was encouraging? Foster those moments with your parents; share with your dad how much you appreciate those kind words and support.

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Finally, here is something to reflect on

Stop seeking approval from your parents. Earlier I shared with you how some controlling parents withhold love and affection when you don’t do something they agree with. We all enjoy praise and approval from our parents, but if we don’t receive it, does that really define who we are? This is your path in your life and you are the sole person who determines where that path takes you. Parents definitely have a strong influence, especially when you are young, but eventually it is your choice on what you do with what they’ve given you. You can agree with the path that parents have set for you, you can take what you like about what you’ve learned from them and forget everything else, or you can even create an entirely new path for yourself. The choice is yours; no one can take away that choice, not even the most controlling parents.


This was first published in the December 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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