I was recently working with a woman, Debbi, who was concerned about a brewing medical problem she was having. When I inquired about a support network that she can call upon to assist her during this difficult time, she embarrassingly noted that she did not tell her mother about her problem; "I do not want my mother to worry" she said, "for as long as I can remember my mother would worry about every little problem I had. I just don't want to deal with it."
This common dynamic that exists for many adult children and their parents, of the children chronically carrying the burden of their parents' worry, is damaging in two ways. First, it prevents adult children from receiving parental warmth and concern in times of need diminishing the openness in the child-parent relationship. More significantly, this phenomenon is a response to parents' attempts to psychologically control their children, minimizing their autonomy, which leads to several unhealthy outcomes.
Being responsive to our children together with placing demands on them have long been the two hallmarks of healthy parenting. Children raised by parents who use the combination of these two factors, known as authoritative parenting, grow up to be healthier emotionally, academically, and socially than children who grow up without this important mix. However, beyond this combination, there is an additional ingredient to healthy parenting that is discussed less often but is as essential as being responsive and having demands. This ingredient is providing your children with psychological autonomy.
Let me explain the meaning of giving your children psychological autonomy by describing the opposite: when children are psychologically controlled by their parents.
Psychological control over children is exhibited in several ways:
Psychologically controlling parents insist that their children never do things that would make them worry. This can be damaging because children need to feel that they can be children and explore their environment. Furthermore, they need to feel competent to make good decisions about their life independently without constantly thinking about their worrisome parents. Imagine how difficult it would be for children to actually enjoy the playground if what drives every one of their moves while playing is that "my parents should not be worried." No more tree climbing, running fast, or football games to name a few. As we see from Debbi, this fear of parental worry can be debilitating for children even once they reach adulthood.
Another way parents control their children is by being cold and detached from them when their children are not obeying them or when their children are behaving in ways that do not please them. Parental warmth and love should not be tied to compliance. Disciplining children should involve negotiating privileges and reasoning; it should not be about manipulating children by removing love. Parents need to convey to their children that they are loved no matter what in order for children to feel secure in this world.
Constantly telling children what to do and how to behave including attempting to relentlessly change the way they act is another way of controlling them. This is very different than having demands on children, an important aspect of healthy parenting. Demandingness involves setting down the ground rules and then allowing children to make their own decisions about their behaviors. Invariably children will break the rules and as a result may need to suffer the consequences of disobedience. Psychologically controlling parents, on the other hand, engage in constant rule reminders and respond in harsh and disproportionate ways to every noncompliance by their children.
Finally, controlling parents express to their children that they know what their children think and feel. Seeing your child's facial expression or body language, guessing what the expression is conveying, and then preempting your children and telling them what is on their mind is in essence parents living in the mind of their children. Not only are these parents controlling the external actions of their children but, by insisting that they also know the thoughts and feelings of their children, they are occupying the inner life and thoughts of their children as well. This type of parental control is a mental intrusion that serves to manipulate children psychologically. It prevents children from voicing their own thoughts and feelings inhibiting their ability of self-expression and autonomy. Even when you think you know what is on the mind of your children, let them decide what to share with you and encourage them to express it.
By avoiding these controlling behaviors you are letting your children be independent, think independently, make their own decisions, and act according to their thinking. On the other hand, parental psychological control stifles children with consequence into the adult years. As Debbi's reaction shows us, this early parental control often leads to an opposite reaction when children grow up and finally free themselves of the control -- they shut their parents out of their life.
Bottom line: parent without controlling!