Some people are fortunate enough to have parents who love them unconditionally, encourage their pursuits, and respect (and support!) their life choices.
Others aren’t so lucky, and instead have parents who criticize and demean everything they do, or else insist that they know what’s best for their offspring and expect to be listened to… even when said “children” are well into their middling years.
Later in the article, we’ll look at some ways of dealing with controlling parents.
First, let’s explore three instances when they cross lines that you ought never to tolerate. In these circumstances, you have to make it crystal clear to them that their words and actions are unacceptable.
Disrespect, Especially In Public
Your parents may not agree with some of your life choices, but they damned well better respect the fact that they are, in fact, your choices.
A lot of parents seem to forget that their children are not extensions of themselves, but rather autonomous beings who deserve just as much courtesy and respect as anyone else.
Things can get even uglier if you have the sort of parent who likes to belittle you in public, whether for their own amusement, or because they think that getting their peers on their side against you will strengthen their stance toward you and force you to change your mind to align with theirs.
It’s one thing if your parent tells you that they don’t like the décor in your home, your choice of career, your hair color, or your wardrobe.
But it’s another thing entirely if they mock or belittle you in front of other people.
If you have enough strength to tell them – in front of friends or relatives – that their behavior is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated, then do so.
Just be prepared that they might make an attempt to laugh it off, and their cronies may then step up to be supportive and gang up against you like a bunch of flying monkeys.
A more effective approach, albeit a “fighting dirty” one, is to bring up some heinous family secret that they wouldn’t want aired in order to shut them the hell up.
Parent – “Are you sure you really need dessert? You’re already fatter than you should be at your height. Am I right? Wouldn’t he/she look so much better if he/she lost weight? Just put the fork down, dear.”
You – “Well, you didn’t NEED to cheat on (other parent) with X, but you did it anyway. Wow, this chocolate mousse is delicious…”
This approach may cause some damage, but it will be effective in silencing them from this kind of crap in future.
Besides, if you already have a horrible relationship with an emotionally abusive, controlling parent, how much worse can it get?
Sometimes, extremes are needed to ensure that they never, ever repeat this kind of behavior toward you again.
Please note: if you have identified your parent as a narcissist (and it’s important to point out that being controlling doesn’t automatically make one a narcissist), this approach is not advised.
When dealing with a narcissist, if you can’t go no contact with them, then your best bet is to adopt the gray rock method and be emotionally unresponsive to their jibes.
Threats, Both Against You, Or Toward Themselves
There was once a man whose sickly mother kept him completely under her thumb by threatening to harm herself if he didn’t do what she wanted, when she wanted.
She was disabled, and if he didn’t come home immediately when she wanted him to, she’d text him something like “I’m going to do X thing, and if I fall down and hurt myself or DIE because you weren’t here to take care of me, then it’ll be YOUR fault.”
Being a rather sensitive sort, he knew damned well that he would blame himself if anything did happen, so he just sighed and complied every time, hating himself for allowing her to manipulate him so badly.
This kind of controlling behavior is incredibly unhealthy, and is just as unacceptable as a parent who may threaten to cut you out of their will if you don’t make the life choices that they want from you.
If this kind of thing has been tolerated in the past, it needs to stop, now.
Be well aware that people rarely (if ever) make good on these kinds of threats – they’ve just learned that they can rule other people through fear and cruelty, so they use what’s already in their repertoire to get what they want.
Calling them out on their empty threats and telling them to go right ahead usually stuns them because it’s not what they expected, and can give you the opportunity for self-empowerment and assertiveness.
Basically, you have to be prepared to walk away, even though there’s just the slimmest chance that you may actually have to do so.
Awareness that you can do that, thus ending their reign of terror over you, is usually enough to get them to amend their actions.
Now, it’s bad enough if your parent(s) treat you like crap, but it’s another level of heinous if they turn their bile toward your life partner.
Your parents may not love the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with, but that issue falls under the whole “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” situation.
Some people have even dealt with situations in which their parents have encouraged them to cheat on their spouses, or leave them for partners whom the parent(s) have deemed more acceptable/appealing in their eyes.
Sadly enough, those whom the parent(s) prefer are often those whom they personally find more physically attractive, or who have careers (and incomes…) that suit their own preferences.
Basically, they’re trying to live vicariously through their children, and if their adult “kids” don’t make the choices they want, then they feel cheated, somehow.
They can get particularly scathing if they’re racist, homophobic or transphobic and you’re in a relationship with someone whose ethnic background or gender they disapprove of, or if your partner has a disability, or even just isn’t as attractive as they’d want them to be.
They might make snide comments when you’re all together – whether passive-aggressive or overt – or even attack your partner outright, demanding that they defend aspects of themselves in order to make them somehow “worthy” in your parents’ eyes.
When and if this type of situation occurs, there are really only two acceptable responses: call out the parent immediately and make it clear that such behavior will not be tolerated again, or leave the situation, also making it clear why you’re doing so.
You’ve chosen your partner for a reason, and if your parents are being disrespectful and cruel to them, then you need to be able to step up and defend the person you love.
If you’ve been dealing with horribly controlling actions from your parents for years, it’s highly unlikely that they’re going to change any time soon.
By the time a person reaches their late 20s, their attitudes and behavior become pretty inflexible, so you can rest assured that people in their 50s, 60s, and beyond are already fiercely set in their ways.
Sometimes, the only thing a person can do to end controlling abuse is to create distance from the abuser.
The whole “blood is thicker than water” crap has been used far too often when it comes to tolerating and accepting horrible behavior, which just ends up causing damage that could very well be irreparable.
Your parents aren’t going to be around forever, but the legacy that they have been permitted to inflict upon you will be, unless you take action to protect yourself.
They’ve proven that they’re not going to make you a priority or show true love and care toward you, so you have to show yourself the unconditional love and care that you never received, and put an end to their cruelty by any means necessary.
How To Deal With Controlling Parents
Before we explore the ways in which you can deal with a controlling mother or father, it’s important to note that there is a scale for how controlling they are.
Where your parents fall on this scale will determine how you might best approach them and their behavior.
At the lower end, you have parents who you could call overbearing rather than controlling. They might give unsolicited advice, make their opinions known about your life choices, and make small decisions for you without your say so.
At the other end, the most controlling parents will use deception, guilt, anger, and many other forms of manipulative behavior to make their child their puppet. They may force you down particular paths that are not what you want.
Whilst you try to figure out what type of controlling parent(s) you have, it is also a good idea to put yourself in their shoes and ask why they have this need for control.
Do they feel such a lack of control over their own lives that they must control yours as a substitute?
Do they feel disappointed with how their life turned out? Has this left them bitter, angry, and resentful of your happiness?
Were their parents abusive and is this the only way they know how to be a parent?
Are they bored and with so much time on their hands that they meddle in your affairs to give them a sense of purpose?
Do they simply want the best for you in life, but are inflexible in what they consider the “best” to be?
Figuring out the motives behind your parents’ controlling behavior will help you determine where on the scale they sit and how best to deal with them.
Dealing With Them In Your Mind
There are two sides to approaching controlling parents. The first is the battle you’ll face in your mind.
The way you think about and act around your parents is a product of the years of unhealthy behavior you have had to put up with from them.
To use healthy coping strategies of you own, you have to change the way you think about the situation.
Accepting Your Parents For Who They Are
As we said earlier, the chances of your parents changing radically are slim.
If they sit at the lower end of the controlling scale, they might be able to change some of the behaviors you find upsetting or annoying.
But even here, don’t expect miracles and don’t expect change to come quickly.
And the further up the scale you go, the less likely you’ll be to see any great change in your parents.
So, what do you do?
You have two choices:
1) Fight and struggle against the idea of your parents as controlling and difficult people, all the while trying to change their behavior.
2) Accept your parents and their controlling ways as who they are and who they are likely to remain.
The latter is a better choice for you, emotionally and mentally, because acceptance requires less energy than resistance.
You don’t have to like your parents or their ways, but you can accept that these are the people you have to contend with.
Break Your Need To Please Your Parents
In some, but not all, cases, you allow your parent’s controlling behavior to continue because you do not want to disappoint them.
Growing up in an environment where you have to conform to certain standards and behave in a very particular way can leave a person with a poorly defined self-concept.
You may only be able to relate your own self-worth to the worth given to you by your parents. This means that your self-esteem takes a knock every time they criticize your decisions, belittle your abilities, or try to assert their beliefs on you in some way.
If you can decouple your self-esteem from the approval of your parents, you will not have to act in ways which please them.
You will be free to make up your own mind about how to live your life.
Of course, this is easier said than done and often requires the help of a trained counselor or other professional.
But by working on this part of your mind, you will be better placed to implement some of the suggestions that come later.
Learn How To Act Outside Of Your Emotions
When faced with a situation in which your parents are trying to control you, it is natural to allow your emotions to guide your reactions.
Yet, this is rarely the best approach to take.
Resentment, fear, anger, sadness, and other negative emotions cloud your judgment and render you unable to act in the most appropriate way.
When you learn to cool your emotions and disconnect them from your thoughts and actions, you can respond to your parents’ behavior in ways that will improve the situation for you, rather than make it worse.
Again, it’s not easy to do when your parents are such a huge part of your life and your shared past is filled with emotional memories.
But a calm and rational demeanor, even if you are fighting to hold back the emotional response, is preferable.
Grasp That Your Life Is Limited
Even if you live to a ripe old age, you will eventually leave this place behind. The question, then, becomes whose life do you want to lead: the one your parents want you to live, or the one you want to live?
Knowing that each time you cave in to their demands, you are relinquishing the chance to choose another future, you can be firmer in your stance and your beliefs.
For right or wrong, you should have the final say in how you live your life.
Your parents have had their chance to create the life they wanted. Don’t let them dictate to you what yours should look like.
Put A Value On The Relationship You Have With Your Parents
In some instances, the best thing you can do to preserve your own sanity is to distance yourself from your parents.
If they constantly upset you every time you see them, it’s not in your best interest to see them so often.
Difficult as it is to admit, you might be better off putting some physical and emotional distance between you and your parents.
If you can’t distance yourself physically in the short term – perhaps you live with them and/or are still a child yourself – you can learn to distance yourself emotionally.
The decision you have to make is how much you value the relationship you have with your parents.
Do you share some genuinely good times with them and the controlling behavior is merely a stain on an otherwise ok relationship?
Or are you filled with anxiety or anger every time you see them and would not really miss them if you never saw them again?
Practical Ways To Deal With Controlling Parents
Now that we’ve explored some of the ways you can adapt your own thinking, let’s take a look at what we do in practical terms.
Be Consistent In Your Approach
It’s helpful to have a plan in place for dealing with your parents. This plan will be specific to you and your circumstances.
Whatever you do, stick to this plan.
What you have to understand is that your parents’ controlling behavior is, to some degree, a learned response. It has evolved over time based on their experiences and their observations of you and your behavior.
While it is important to remember that, as noted above, your parents are unlikely to change who they are at their core, they may, to some degree, change how they behave toward you.
But they will only do so if you are able to remain steadfast to your plan.
If you try an approach a few times, see no difference in the end result, and then proceed to change back to your old ways, your parents will see no reason to change.
But if you keep it up, they may eventually relent and “learn” to take a different approach.
After all, their desire to control you requires them to expend a significant amount of energy – mentally, emotionally, and even physically.
If they see that this energy is being wasted, they might alter the way they deal with you to conserve it.
Remove All Dependencies You May Have On Them
For however long you remain dependent on your parents, they will feel like they have the right to voice their opinions and dictate how you live.
If you live under their roof, owe them anything financially, or rely on them for other things such as help with your own children, you need to cut those ties.
Granted, this is not always easy or straightforward. You might simply not have that opportunity right now, but you can plan for it.
Much of the time, it comes down to money, so be financially prudent and save as much as you can. And do not tell them about it.
Take a job wherever you can and spend as little as possible. Your parents might ridicule your choice of job or even try to stop you from working, but you must remain resolute in your determination to become financially independent.
Pay back anything you owe them, even if it was given to you as a gift. If they bought your car or anything else you own, pay them back for that too.
Don’t rely on them to help you in any other way either. Take away any reason they might feel they have for controlling what you do.
Move out and find a place of your own as soon as you can, even if this means moving to a less expensive area and into a property that’s barely big enough. It doesn’t need to be your forever home, just somewhere to escape your parents’ overbearing behavior.
Set Firm Boundaries, Even If You Don’t Share What They Are
You must know where your red lines are; what behaviors go beyond what you will accept.
And once you have worked these out, you must be firm in your application of them.
We talked about 3 big examples of red lines earlier, but you may have any number of other behaviors that you find intolerable.
This is all part of your overall plan for dealing with your parents. You must know what action you will take when a particular boundary has been crossed.
Do you leave the situation immediately to indicate that you are not happy with how they behaved?
Do you given them 3 strikes before you leave?
Do you stay silent and refuse to engage?
Do you fight your corner?
Whatever you do, again it comes down to being consistent.
In some instances, should your parents be particularly defensive when you try to talk about their behavior, you don’t even need to tell them what your boundaries are.
In fact, it will do little good to tell them. It may even make their behavior worse.
But you can still follow your plan every time your red lines are crossed. You can take action for yourself and for those you care about who may also be subject to your parents’ behavior.
It all comes down to how far along the controlling scale they are.
If they are overbearing, but you still have a good relationship, talking to your parents and explaining why their behavior is hurtful is a reasonable plan.
If you can barely speak two words to your parents before getting upset, or if they simply refuse to listen to anything you say, there’s little point in revealing your boundaries.
Never Underestimate The Struggle
No one wishes their parents were controlling, but yours are. You have to deal with it.
But it is not easy.
You will face the whole range of negative human emotions and you will struggle.
If you can, form a support structure around you. Close friends, partners, therapists, and even other family members can help you through challenging times.
In an ideal world, our parental relationships would be the ones we could count on most, but this world is far from ideal.
How you face this reality is up to you. Hopefully this guide has given you some strategies to cope with the fallout of controlling parents.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.