Whether you’re an adult child or living at home (or an adult child who lives at home!), these tips on how to deal with controlling parents will help you see your situation – and your mom and dad – differently.
I was inspired to write this article for Andy. “Growing up, my parents always had a way of making me feel crappy about myself,” he said on How to Cope With Difficult Parents. “Criticism after criticism, controlling me in different ways. Madly praising others’ kids in front of me. Always have to give me orders on what to do around the house, even when I’m right about to do a chore, they just have to tell me to do exactly what I’m about to do so it seems like ‘they won.’ My parents are controlling and childish at the maximum level. I’m now 36, they visit me once a year and yet they still do the same crap. I’m never good enough for them. Someone else’s son is always better than me. My parents are the most negative people I’ve ever known, and they dreain me of my spirit and energy. I’m trying to learn how to deal with controlling parents but it is destroying the family love. If you have tips or advice for dealing with parents who try to control adult children, I’d love to hear them.”
I can’t give personal or specific advice on how to deal with controlling parents, but I’m happy to share a few ideas. Please feel free to share your experiences and thoughts on dealing with parents below. I can almost guarantee that if you share one tip on how you’re learning to deal with parents who try to control you, you will feel better about your family situation! Just focusing on what works for you is enough to brighten your spirits just a little.
Whether you’re a teenager or an adult child living at home, the most important thing to remember is that you can’t change your parents. You can only change how you deal with their controlling parenting style.
“Giving up hope is one of the healthiest, most life-affirming things you could do for yourself,” writes Dr Laura Schlessinger in Bad Childhood – Good Life: How to Blossom and Thrive in Spite of an Unhappy Childhood. “If, of course, you accept [your controlling parents] and don’t pout.”
Giving up hope may sound negative and depressing — but after you read my explanation and tips for coping with parents who try to control you, you may feel differently. Giving up your expectations may be the healthiest thing you ever do in life.
7 Tips for Dealing With Controlling Parents
My husband and I recently attended a family dynamics workshop (it’s the fifth of seven sessions); it was all about coping with your childhood relationships. I wrote a bit about that workshop in How to Love Yourself When You Don’t Feel Good Enough.
Since all families are different there is no “one size fits all” answer when you’re looking for ways to deal with controlling parents. Every family is unique. Your parents are unique, you are unique, and your patterns of relating to each other are unique. Families have their own cultures and ways of communicating, which makes it difficult for me to give advice or specific tips. These are general ideas for dealing with parents who tend to control and manipulate their adult children….and all of my tips revolve around changing the only person you have control over: you.
1. Let go of your need to please your parents
We grow up seeking approval, affirmation, and even love from our parents. Andy referred to this when he mentioned his parents’ constant criticisms of him and praise of other kids. He may not admit it, but he really wants to make his mom and dad proud of him. This is normal and healthy; of course we want to make our parents proud! We love them, and we want to know they love us.
So, part of why it’s so difficult to confront our parents about their controlling behavior is because we don’t want to disappoint or anger them. Even as grown adult children, we want them to keep loving us – even when we feel like we hate them! The first tip on how to deal with controlling parents (or any toxic person in your life) is to recognize your need to please them. Accepting that you really want your parents’ approval and love will help you communicate with them better.
It’s also important to remember that every interaction with our parents is a reminder that we are their children. No matter how old we are, we are our parents’ kids. This is partly why some parents are so controlling; they see us as little babies, toddlers, 10 year olds, 14 year olds. They see us at all ages of our lives, from dirty diapers to crying in pain. They don’t just see us for who we are now…they see us at all ages and stages of our lives. Part of their need to control us comes from their need to protect and keep us safe.
2. Take power when and where you can
“Perhaps you feel that you have been wronged by a family member, a friend, or a coworker,” writes Allan Klein in You Can’t Ruin My Day: 52 Wake-Up Calls to Turn Any Situation Around. “You may even feel justified in being angry with them, and you may be right. However, what you may not realize is that holding on to your anger or carrying a grudge against someone never serves you. It closes doors on relationships. It weighs you down and holds you back from moving forward. It zaps your energy – energy that you could use more productively to fully get pleasure from your relationships and enrich your life.”
Yes, you may have every right to be angry at your controlling parents! Maybe they really are negative, horrible, critical, controlling, and abusive. They are wrong, and you are right.
But staying in that position does not give you power. It diminishes your power, in fact. Why? Because you can’t change them. It’s like your parents are a horse racing around a racetrack. You can’t stop the horse – you need to ride the horse in the direction it’s going. Ride the horse, and take back your power. How? By doing the work it takes to learn how to deal with controlling parents.
3. Cut financial ties to parents who want to control you
A reader emailed me, asking me for help with her father. She’s an adult child; her dad is making her life miserable. He’s also having a negative effect her husband and child. She said her father helped her get a mortgage loan, and he holds that over them. He’s one of those controlling parents who thinks he has the right to dictate how she spends her money, and she asked for tips on dealing with him.
My first and most obvious idea is to pay her dad the money back. Instead of staying financially beholden, she might find ways to free herself financially so she can take her life back. This might involve getting a bank loan and paying her dad back the money she borrowed – even if the money was originally a gift. It’s not a “gift” if it’s taking an emotional toll on her and her family.
Or, if everyone agrees that the money wasn’t a loan and thus isn’t owed, then she might get him to sign an informal that says she doesn’t owe him money and he has no right to lord it over her. This black-and-white evidence might help them take money out of the father-daughter relationship.
If you live at home and are financially dependent, you will find it more difficult to deal with controlling parents. “Their house, their rules”, right? Read 10 Highest Paying Jobs for College Students – even if you’re not in college yet.
4. Learn to recognize emotional blackmail
This is one of the best ways to take your life back! If you have truly critical and controlling parents, you may recognize that they disguise their criticism, try to make you feel guilty for past behavior, or constantly make you feel bad about your life. They don’t want to let you live your life. Before confronting this type of difficult parents, it’s important to recognize and learn to deal with emotional blackmail.
Read books like Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You by Dr Susan Forward. She defines “emotional blackmail” as a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us (controlling parents!) threaten to punish us for not doing what they want. Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationships with them; they know our vulnerabilities and our deepest secrets. They are our mothers, our partners, our bosses and coworkers, our friends and our lovers. And no matter how much they care about us, they use this intimate knowledge to give themselves the payoff they want: our compliance.
I guarantee that you will NOT learn how to deal with controlling parents simply by reading one blog post! You need to learn specific ways to communicate with your mom and dad. Take a weekend workshop in assertiveness training, or talk to a counselor. If you’re an adult child of controlling parents, you need to keep reminding yourself that you’re a grownup. You’re not a child anymore, and you don’t have to succumb to emotional manipulations. A big part of this is learning to say “no” and stand up for yourself without feeling guilty or scared of your parents’ response.
If your parents are emotionally manipulative and controlling, read Surprising Examples of Verbal Abuse in Relationships. It may help if you learn how to recognize verbal abuse.
5. Recognize the difference between emotions and action plans
Emotion says, “I hate you! I want you to leave me alone forever! You are the worst most controlling parents ever and I can’t stand dealing with you! I’m sick of your attempt to control me and I don’t want to learn how to deal with you because you suck. And I’m scared/tired/frustrated/miserable!” Those are your emotions, and they are normal.
Your emotions are not an action plan. Whether you’re an adult child or a kid living at home, you need to come up with an action plan for dealing with controlling parents. An action plan says, “I want a better life, better relationships. I don’t deserve to be treated like this. To stop this from happening, I need to (insert action plan here).”
To deal with your controlling parents, you will have to do something you don’t want to do. May you’ll have to quit a job you love, move to a different city, learn how to set boundaries with family members, and force yourself to actually stick to your boundaries. You might have to talk to a family counselor, get emotionally strong and healthy, and learn how to deal with controlling parents in different situations (eg, when you live at home, when you’re an adult child, when they’re dealing with health issues, etc).
No, it is not easy to take your life back. Yes, it is possible! It’s definitely easier when you’re an adult child who lives on your own, but even when you live at home you can separate yourself emotionally.
6. Start creating your action plan
You can’t change who your parents are (or how they try to control you), and you may need to keep living at home with them for the next few months or years. Don’t let these facts get you down! There are ways you can deal with controlling parents – and most of them require creating a plan of action.
Examples of action plans:
- Commit to learning how to deal with controlling parents by reading books or talking to a family therapist.
- Decide in advance how you’ll calmly and rationally respond to your parents when you feel they’re trying to control you.
- Practice what you want to say to your mom and dad when things get crazy.
- Arrange to phone a friend or family member when you feel like you’re losing control.
- Take care of your emotional and spiritual health. Get healthy and strong, grounded and peaceful. Decide that your parents can’t control your emotional and spiritual life.
If you’re a teen or child living at home with controlling parents, talk in person to an adult you trust. Don’t rely on the internet or forums for advice! There aren’t any quick tips on how to deal with parents who want to control you; you need to find strategies that are geared to your specific family situation.
7. Stop wishing your parents less controlling, or different, or better
These controlling parents are yours. If you’re still wishing they were different, you need to let go of your desire that you were born in a different family. Accept reality. This is your life, and the sooner you accept it, the happier you will be.
You can still hope you’ll one day have a better, healthier relationship with your parents. But, you must stop hoping and wishing they’d change. Your mom and dad have found that their controlling parenting style works for them, and they won’t give it up without a huge fight. They may continue to be critical, manipulative, overbearing and difficult to live with no matter what you do. But, luckily, you have control over your thoughts and feelings! You are free to choose to distance yourself emotionally, physically, socially, and financially.
You can choose to live your own life even if you live at home with controlling parents. You can choose to be emotionally and spiritually free even if you’re an adult child of 40, even if you’re taking care of elderly parents, even if you know they will never ever change.
Resources for Dealing With Controlling Parents
You Can’t Ruin My Day: 52 Wake-Up Calls to Turn Any Situation Around by Allen Klein is awesome! What a fun book, so cheerful and light – it is guaranteed to make you feel better about your life. It’s not about learning how to deal with controlling parents; it’s about coping with any and all negative, bad, critical, unfortunate situations in life.
“The next time someone pisses you off, mentally take a half step sideways and see him or her from a different angle,” writes Klein. “See their good side. See that they have wants and needs just like you. See that they are not out to get you; they are just people with a different opinion than yours. See them as an ally instead of an enemy.”
In Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. Dr. Susan Forward draws on case histories and the real-life voices of adult children of toxic parents to help you free yourself from the frustrating patterns of your relationship with your parents — and discover a new world of self-confidence, inner strength, and emotional independence.
I can’t offer advice on how to deal with controlling parents, but you may find it helpful to share your experience here. Sometimes writing about your family brings insight and clarity, and can help you cope.
And remember: to heal from the past – and cope with controlling parents – you need to let go of your wish that your family was different. They are who they are, and you can’t change them. Stop wishing, and start learning how to change your response so you can be happier and healthier.
Your thoughts are welcome below! I don't give advice, but you can get free relationship help from marriage coach Mort Fertel.