Breaking the Parental Grip:
Coping with Overcontrolling Parents
by Dr. Michael Obsatz
During infancy and childhood, children need their
parents love, attention, support, and guidance. They are
being formed, and look to parents as role models for how
to cope in the world. It is natural for parents of small
children to control them, since the parents don't want
their children harming themselves. Parents keep track of
young children so they don't run out in the street, burn
themselves with matches, or take unhealthy risks.
As children mature, they usually want to become
more autonomous and make more of their own choices. They
find others who can act as role models grandparents, teachers,
uncles, aunts, peers, and family friends. Sometimes, they
look to celebrities for mentoring. When children move into
adolesence, they begin to differientiate themselves from
their parents. They become more their own people, with
separate identities. This individuation process is coupled
with a need to attach in healthy ways to others. Erik Erikson,
a psychologist, believed that young adults move through
an identity phase and then an intimacy phrase. The nature
and order of Eriksons phases has been debated by many,
including Carol Gilligan, another psychologist. She believes
the focus on identity and individuation is based on male
assumptions. For many, intimacy tasks take precedence over
However you look at it, both identity and intimacy
are necessary for healthy adulthood. One must claim
to be ones own self, and also seek to find others to connect
with emotionally, intellectually, physically, sexually,
and spiritually. One defines oneself partly by the people
with whom one connects. Intimacy leads to a redefined identity
which leads to further intimacy.
Some parents refuse to let their children grow up.
They want their children to be dependent upon them even
into adulthood. This encouragement for dependency creates
a kind of symbiosis, co-dependency, or enmeshment. Parents
feel responsible for their childrens happiness and success,
and believe that such success reflects back on them as
effective parents. Some parents want to continue to make
all the choices for their young adult children. They want
to control their childrens choice of a partner, career,
hobbies, friendships, lifestyle, religious beliefs, etc.
This parental control can be powerfully exerted in the
- Guilt Parents can use phrases like, "If
you really cared about me, you would... (do whatever I
want you to do)."
- Shame and Undermining Parents can shame children.
"You are not capable of making healthy and appropriate
choices." "You need my help."
- Threats of abandonment, and actual abandonment
Parents can threaten children with "If you marry
that person, I'll never speak to you again." Some
parents actually leave their children and refuse to see
- Threats of self-destruction Parents can tell
their children that they will suffer or die as a result
of an adult child's choices.
Why do parents use overcontrol?
Most parents who try to overcontrol their adult children
do so out of fear and low self-esteem. They have been
shamed and feel indequate. They need to control their children
to validate their own lives and choices which they don't
really feel good about. They believe that by cloning their
children in their own image, they will have a continuous
connection/obligation with them that will support them
in the present as well as in their elderly lives. Basically,
they are using their children to feel better about themselves.
But ultimately, it does not work, and children cannot make
up for their parents shame and feelings of indequacy. This
frustrates the parents and makes them try to control even
How do adult children respond to parental overcontrol?
- Many feel angry and resentful. Some become depressed
and suicidal. Some turn to addictions to numb themselves
- Some go along with it, and give away their power
to their parents. They become exactly what their parents
want them to become marry the parents choice, take the
job the parents would choose, etc. They may be passive-aggressive
or depressed. Some of them find ways to diffuse their
anger through substance abuse or other addictions.
- Some adult children accept some of their parents
wishes for them and refuse others. They compromise
and work it out.
- Others rebel, and make their own choices. They
shake off parental control and do their own thing. They
may move thousands of miles away from their parents. In
some extreme cases, they choose to live the exact opposite
way that their parents wished them to live. They frequently
risk parental abandonment and lack of acceptance. Some
of these adult children avoid their parents. Some are
shunned and disowned by their parents. Others become angry
at their parents limiting control.
- Still others, pretend to go along with their parents,
and have a secret life of their own they dont tell their
parents about. They have secrets from their parents.
- Still others are able to negotiate and convince
their parents that they are adults and are entitled
to live their own lives. Parents re-adjust their expectations,
let go of the controls, and it works out well.
Parents have the power to enhance or destroy their
children's lives. They can validate and appreciate
their children or cripple with them shame and guilt. Many
adults have been so wounded by their parents that they
live lives of pain and humiliation. Parents who do not
look at their own emotional wounds are likely to inflict
them on their children. Overcontrol is one way to abuse
and hurt one's children.
© 2003 Dr. Michael Obsatz