How Do Controlling Parents Harm Kids?

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My happy baby girl.

In a fascinating article about controlling parents on the Good Men Project, I learned about the difference between providing structure as opposed to being controlling. One is good, the other bad. But I had no idea how bad. It turns out children of controlling parents suffer from anxiety and depression. Kids who have parents who provide structure but allow autonomy, are more resilient.

Here is an excerpt from the article written by Wendy S. Grolnick, Professor of Psychology at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts. There is a ton of useful information and tips in her article. It’s well worth reading the entire article.

Controlling parenting is counterproductive, undermining children’s self-regulation and their capacities for responsibility.

Parents can often feel confused when they hear that it’s good for children to have parents who are in control of their households, but that controlling parenting is bad for them.

Mom and dad may feel caught between these two pieces of advice, suggesting that control can be good but also bad for children. How is a parent to know what’s right and when?

That’s why our research has identified a more straightforward way to think about raising children. It distinguishes between children having ‘structure’ (healthy) as opposed to children being pushed through controlling parenting (unhealthy).

Difference between controlling parenting and parenting which provides ‘structure’

Structure can involve rules, guidelines and limits so that children know what’s expected of them and the consequences of their actions. That helps them learn successfully and avoid getting into trouble. But structure does not have to be imposed in a controlling manner.

Structure can be developed in ways that also support children’s autonomy. Parents can get together with their children to figure out rules and consequences. There can be back and forth. Dissension can be heard and discussed.

Parents can listen to critical feedback and empathise with children’s dislike of tasks, be it doing chores or homework. So structure can support autonomy and children’s agency. But, ultimately, rules and guidance are established, so this approach is not simply permissive. Supporting children’s autonomy is actually very active and does not involve a loss of parental authority or agency.

This approach contrasts with controlling parenting, where parents push and pressure children into actions over which they may have little say, and parents dictate without allowing genuine input from children. Such parenting can sometimes involve harsh discipline, including corporal punishment.

How controlling parenting can harm children

Controlling parenting can undermine children’s self-regulation and their capacity for responsibility. Instead of learning how to manage their own behavior, children may become reactive, responding negatively to being controlled. This may lead them to do the opposite of what is demanded, not from personal choice, but as a reaction against too much pressure.

We tested these two aspects of parenting, structured and controlling, in a study of 215 children and their families in several parts of Worcester, Massachusetts. We looked at whether parents were controlling and pressuring or whether they supported autonomy. We also tested whether they provided structure or whether rules and guidelines were lacking.

The article goes on to talk about why parents are controlling. Some of it is living vicariously through their kids and being too focused on performance. That makes me look back at how we parented and not in a good light. Rather than dwell on all my past mistakes, I think I’ll be grateful that my parenting evolved through the years. Also, today is a good day to reflect on all I’m thankful for. It’s time to get out the gratitude journal! I’m thankful for my husband and the kind and thoughtful adults my children have become.


Back when my son was young.

What are your thoughts about your parenting style or that of your parents? Have you crossed the line from structured to controlling?

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