I’m an adult: What do I do if I feel like my parents are controlling me? (and how counseling can help)

Controlling parents

Do you ever feel like your parents still watch over you, even though you’re an adult? It might be your mother calling to check if you’ve eaten enough, or your father offering advice on managing your finances.

Believe it or not, it’s not uncommon in adulthood to deal with feelings of being under parental control. Deep down, we all know that their intentions come from love and care. But what if you notice that their behavior negatively impacts your well-being? After all, you’re an independent individual who may still need support from parents from time to time but not control or over-involvement.

Unfortunately, even in adulthood, it’s not easy to find the right balance between receiving guidance from parents and maintaining your independence. However, without setting healthy boundaries with your parents, your sense of self and autonomy may suffer.

In this article, we’ll explain the impact of parents’ controlling behavior on your mental health, discuss strategies for communicating your needs and explore how counseling can help with controlling parents.

Why do parents control us in adulthood?

Parents’ attempts to control adults aren’t always conscious. Most of the time, their actions are usually driven by love, concern, and the desire to protect. One primary factor is the difficulty of letting go. It’s not easy for parents to accept the transition from child to adult. Parents who have spent years guiding every step of their child’s life may struggle to recognize their child’s maturity and independence.

Sometimes parents also find it hard to adjust to their new roles and become advisors instead of caregivers. This can be expressed in constant worry about their adult children’s actions and failure to give them needed space. This protective instinct can lead to excessive control and involvement in their adult child’s life.

Moreover,  controlling behavior may also be linked to the parents’ own anxieties and insecurities. In particular, some parents project their unfulfilled goals and fears onto their children and unconsciously use this control as a means to ensure that their children achieve what they couldn’t.

In either case, when you’re an adult, having another adult in your life who tries to control your actions can feel overwhelming, regardless of their intentions. That’s why you should recognize signs of over-controlling parents.

Signs of controlling parents in adulthood

When you’re an adult, it’s natural that you don’t need as much involvement from your parents in your personal life as you used to when you were a child. Still, sometimes there are signs of controlling behavior that are affecting your independence and well-being.

Some of the signs that indicate your parent’s over-involvement in your life could be:

  • Frequent checking in – Your parents expect constant updates on your plans and activities, even if they’re not related to them. They might even ask you for immediate responses, regardless of your schedule or obligations.
  • Emotional manipulation – In general, it’s not easy to recognize signs of manipulation. But if your parents are making you feel guilty for living your life differently than they would prefer or for making decisions that prioritize your needs over theirs, it’s a sign of control.
  • Using financial support as leverage – Sometimes parents might offer you financial support as a way to influence your choices or behavior. Whether you like it or not, financial help comes with strings attached — this makes you feel obliged to meet their expectations.
  • Offering unsolicited advice – Giving you advice on everything from your job to your lifestyle, even when you haven’t asked for it.
  • Not respecting your boundaries – You feel the intrusion of your parents in most private aspects of your life, such as financial, romantic, or professional.

The link between controlling parents and anxiety

Even if you are aware of your parents’ controlling behavior as an adult, sometimes you might think that getting angry over them is an overreaction. But actually, your feelings of anger and frustration are natural because your parents’ attempts to manipulate you directly affect your mental health.

Studies show that perceived psychological control from parents is associated with anxiety and depressive symptoms in children (Wei & Kendall, 2014). Besides, parental control reduces children’s perceived competence and increases their anxiety as a result (Affrunti & Ginsburg, 2012). Therefore, it’s not surprising that these effects also continue to affect individuals in adulthood. Specifically, parents’ controlling behavior in adulthood often leads to low self-esteem and a decreased trust in one’s abilities.

This is especially true if parents impose excessive behavioral restrictions during their child’s adolescence. For example, a 2019 study shows that parents’ rules can translate into a lack of trust in their ability to become independent among adolescents (Gittins & Hunt, 2019). This, in turn, undermines their self-confidence in adulthood as well.

Another study indicates the long-term effects of perceived psychological control by parents. In particular, adolescents who felt overly controlled by their parents at age 13 exhibited signs of poorer adaptation into mid-adulthood. This also impacted their social relationships and reduced their likelihood of being in a romantic relationship (Loeb et al., 2020).

5 ways to overcome your parents’ controlling behavior

Although it’s not easy to confront your controlling parents and regain a sense of independence, as an adult, you’re responsible for taking care of your mental health.

Here are some strategies to help you get started with dealing with controlling parents:

  • Be assertive in your communication

It’s important to share how you feel and what you need from your parents. Sometimes you may mistakenly assume that you require their help when you don’t. Just make sure to be assertive and clearly explain how their behavior impacts you.

  • Set clear boundaries

Your parents should realize what you consider acceptable and what crosses the line of your privacy. For example, you might request that they call before visiting your home. Clearly articulating these boundaries will show them that you respect both your independence and their role in your life.

  • Start increasing independence gradually

Begin making small decisions without the need for their approval. You can avoid getting your parents involved in your decisions at all or share your choices with them after you’ve made them.

  • Limit your availability

As an adult, there are plenty of things going on in your life and it’s natural that you don’t always have time for your parents. Don’t judge yourself because of it — it’s healthy to have time for yourself. Just make sure to politely communicate when you’re free for their calls or visits.

  • Get professional help

Finally, if you find it hard to communicate effectively or establish boundaries with your parents, consider seeking support from a professional. Therapists will provide strategies to ensure your relationship with your parents is both healthy and respectful.

How counseling can help you deal with controlling parents

Sometimes it’s hard to explain why you need independence and how your parents’ controlling behaviors affect you without offending them. After all, since you’re an adult, your elderly parents might be at a stage in their lives where they don’t fully realize the impact of their actions. As they grow older, it becomes increasingly challenging for them to look at things from your perspective and change their long-established habits of care and concern.

In that case, getting professional help from counselors can be the best possible solution to explore the underlying reasons behind their control, find ways to communicate effectively with them, and work towards healthier relationships.

Empirical research supports the effectiveness of family therapy in improving relationships between family members (e.g., Crane & Morgan, 2007; Stolper et al., 2022). The reason for such effectiveness can be explained by therapists’ focus on helping their clients articulate feelings and needs in a safe environment.

During counseling sessions, you’ll learn practical techniques for setting firm yet respectful boundaries. This, in turn, can help you lower stress levels and increase psychological resilience while dealing with familial pressures.

Here are some of the potential ways counseling can help you deal with controlling parents as an adult:

  • Counselors create a safe space for you to express your feelings and concerns about your parents’ behavior.
  • Therapists can help uncover the root causes of your parents’ controlling actions.
  • You’ll develop better communication strategies to articulate your need for independence and set boundaries in a respectful way.
  • Therapy sessions often explore ways to strengthen your self-esteem and assertiveness.
  • Counselors will help you understand how to respond to controlling behaviors calmly and constructively.

Get professional help in Michigan

If you’re looking for help from professional counselors to deal with controlling parents, Health for Life Counseling in Grand Rapids is here for you. Our team of licensed therapists can help you understand the dynamics of family relationships and provide the support and strategies you need to have healthier interactions.

Get in touch with us at Grand Rapids, MI, and Ada, MI, or schedule counseling sessions online. To ensure that you can access professional counseling services with ease, we accept a wide range of health insurance options, including Optum, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, Cash Rate, and more. Here’s the full list of insurance options available to us.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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