How Controlling Parents Shape Our Adult Selves

familial trauma control

When I was a freshman in high school, I remember being embarrassed to bring any friends over to the house. “My parents aren’t… cool,” I used to explain. “They’re super strict and controlling.” And I did, sincerely, believe that they were probably the most controlling and uncompromising couple of old kooks in town. After all, they implemented a strict curfew, made all of my friends formally call them Mr. and Mrs. (kill me now), and had an unreasonably harsh stance of alcohol and drug use – even when it came to pot! My friend and I had found marijuana in her parents’ bedroom… I knew that other parents smoked. Oh, and not to mention the fact that I got chewed out when I brought home a progress report featuring any C’s at all. I knew that I could raise my grades before the actual report card was issued; what didn’t my parents understand about that?

Of course, later on in life, I came to realize that they were just expressing normal, parental concerns and setting healthy, realistic boundaries. Being their firstborn, it was unrealistic of me to expect that they would parent me perfectly. Maybe punishments were disproportionate on occasion, but raising a self-righteous and rebellious teenager is certainly no walk in the park. For the most part, my parents encouraged my autonomy and independence. They supported my interests and worked hard to allow me the opportunity to pursue my own passions. They discouraged me from participating in self-destructive behaviors, and encouraged me to reach my full academic potential.

When most of look back at our childhoods, we will be able to recognize that our parents were truly doing the best that they could given their circumstances. Of course, in some instances, parenting styles can be detrimental. It is absolutely possible for parents to be over-controlling, and those parents that do engage in truly controlling parenting often do so to the long-term detriment of their children. Perhaps a parent is struggling with an undiagnosed mental disorder, an untreated substance use disorder, or is simply carrying over the dysfunction they learned from their own parental figures. When a child receives feedback in the form of controlling behaviors, punishments, and a general lack of empathy, it can be exceedingly damaging to his or her sense of identity and self-worth.

Signs of Controlling Parenting

  1. Unrealistic expectations

The child is expected to meet irrational and unattainable standards, and it disproportionately punished when he does not. For example, the child is instructed to run to the store for milk and eggs despite the fact that it is raining, and is then punished for coming home wet.

  1. Unilateral and unreasonable rules and regulations

Rather than talking to their children and explaining their concerns, the parents set strict rules that only apply to one child, or to certain members of the family. Rather than appealing to the self-interest of the child, these regulations often serve as an appeal to the disparity of power between the parent and the child.

  1. Lack of respect and empathy

The child is seen as a subordinate, and the parent (or figure of authority) is seen as a superior. This authoritarian environment and hierarchical dynamic manifests itself as a lack of empathy or caring for the child.

  1. Role-reversal

Seeing as many controlling parents have narcissistic tendencies, they subconsciously believe that it is the child’s role to meet their own needs – not the other way around. They are viewed as an object or possession, and are frequently manipulated into taking on the parental role (while the actual parent will take on the role of the child). The child is expected to meet the emotional, economic, physical… perhaps even sexual needs of the parent. If the child is unwilling to do so, he is either punished or manipulated into compliance.

  1. Excessive punishment

Controlling parents will typically engage in two types of punishment: active and overt, or passive and covert. Overt punishment will often include physical force, invasion of privacy, yelling, threats, and intimidation. Covert punishment, on the other hand, will include shaming, guilt-tripping, playing the victim, and manipulation. The child will be manipulated into compliance, and if he fails to comply, he will be punished for his imperfections.

  1. Infantilizing

Because controlling parents fail to recognize their child as an individual and self-sufficient entity, they may raise him to be completely dependent. Infantilizing will undeniably have a major impact on individuality, self-esteem, and competency. The parent believes and behaves as if the child is incapable of making his own decisions, and his natural development will be harshly stunted as a direct result. Children who are raised in this type of home environment will often suffer from over-attachment, self-underestimation, and approval seeking behaviors long into adulthood.

Negative Effects of a Controlling Upbringing

Individuals who are raised in controlling environments are liable to face a wide range of related issues throughout adulthood. Four of the most common consequences of a controlling upbringing are as follows:

  1. Controlling and abusive behavior

Individuals who possess controlling tendencies were (more than likely) controlled in the past. Because controlling behaviors were taught, controlling behaviors were learned, and the cycle of abuse will continue on until it is intervened upon. Individuals who were controlled as children learn that manipulation and dominance are the only viable ways to receive respect – the only way to get ahead in life is to govern over others. Such an outlook will have an inevitable impact on interpersonal relationships, the development of adequate life skills, and overall quality of life. Just as the abused becomes the abuser, the controlled will become the controller.

  1. Lack of self-interest and personal motivation

When individuals are actively controlled from an early age, they are unable to develop a sense of self-identity. They grow up abiding by the rules of others; attempting to live up to unrealistic expectations and perpetually please their caregivers. They are not encouraged to pursue their own passions, but rather pushed into filling certain roles and taking on unwarranted responsibilities. Many adults who grew up in controlling households have become experts in the realm of dissociation. They procrastinate and disconnect when they are on their own, and may actively seek out partners or careers in which they fill the subordinate role they are used to playing.

  1. Susceptibility to exploitation

Those who grow up in controlling households essentially learn that their main function in life is to serve others; they often grow up with people-pleasing propensities, and are unable to set and maintain healthy personal boundaries. They are unable to say no, and carry around an overwhelming sense of toxic shame. They feel guilty when they fall short of the expectations of others, no matter how unrealistic those expectations may be. The family dynamic of control and subservience will transfer into all other relationships – in the workplace, in friendships, and in romance. Individuals who grew up being controlled by their parental figures are far more susceptible to exploitation in adulthood, and only an internal shift will change this fact (because long-standing family dynamics are not likely to convalesce… at least not immediately).

  1. Lack of direction and focus

If an individual grows up being told what to do and when to do it, the freedom that goes hand-in-hand with adulthood will likely be quite overwhelming. The mind will resort to the same survival strategies and obsess over the same deep-seated fears despite newfound freedom from control. Those who are over-controlled during childhood will often feel lost, anxious, preoccupied, or overly passive in adulthood.

Developing a Sense of Self

Although our adult selves are undeniably shaped by the way we were raised, we do not need to let a controlling upbringing dictate the way in which we live the remainder of our lives. We have the power to heal; to change our own self-destructive behavioral patterns and begin developing a true, authentic, and lasting self of self-importance and individuality. Those who grow up in controlling households are prone to black and white thinking, difficulties pertaining to self-expression and creativity, perfectionism, and a wide range of emotional problems (from anxiety-related disorders to depression to projected anger). These are difficult issues to overcome, but with intensive therapeutic guidance and thorough, familial healing, true recovery can occur. We at Next Chapter specialize in treating the long-standing effects of relational trauma, and have extensive experience working with men who have been emotionally shaped by controlling upbringings and unhealthy attachments.

To learn more about our comprehensive, family-oriented program of trauma, addiction, and mental health recovery, please feel free to contact us today.