How Do Controlling Parents Harm Kids?

kat tub

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?

What happens when parents are over-controlling?


My daughter, teary-eyed in royal blue.

I believe it was easier to raise toddlers than young twenty-somethings. The reason why can be explained in one simple word: control. I had total control when my kids were babies. Yes, I was a wee bit tired, but hey, I’m tired today. I realize now I have very little say so. I no longer get to decide what my kids eat, what activities they do, who their friends are, what they wear and when they go to bed. I look back fondly on the days when I could tell my kids what to do and they’d do it. I wrote a SwimSwam story about 10 Things Parents Can and Cannot Control.

Of course, I’m not “raising” my twenty-somethings anymore. In theory, they’re raised and my job is done. My job now is more of a sounding board. And they take my advice from time to time, but not always. I worry a lot about them, but they are okay. It stresses me out when I give advice and they don’t take it. After all, I do know a few things about life. Of course, life doesn’t work in a straight line without some ups and downs along the way, although I expect and want my children’s lives to be perfect.

If I look back closely on my kids as toddlers, I will admit that I didn’t have total control. Toddlerhood is when they begin to test the boundaries. And my two kids pushed back from time to time. For example, we had a car without door locks and my toddler son could open the door while I was driving. Thank the Lord for the car seat! I tried to explain to him in words he could understand, that if he opened the door while I was driving he could go “splat” on the road. For the next few days, he’d open the door and yell “SPLAT! Mommy SPLAT!” and giggle uncontrollably. 

With my daughter, I really wanted her to love ballet. I wanted more than anything to be a dance mom. My daughter hated it. She thought I was punishing her by making her dress in tights and a leotard when it was scorching hot outside. Her brother got dropped off at the pool with the swim team, and that looked like way more fun to her. My daughter’s ballet teacher pulled me aside one day and said, “I know your daughter has the ability, but she stands at the barres and refuses to do anything.”

robertbaby 1

I took ballet lessons as a child but when I lost a ballet slipper at age 11 or 12, my mom said, “I can tell you aren’t really interested” and she took me out of ballet class. The biggest issue with my ballet class, wasn’t the missing ballet slipper. She enrolled me in the Bellevue Ballet School with Gwenn Barker, which was a 45-minute drive from Snohomish, our home town. My mom always believed in the finding the best of everything, and I had no idea how great a teacher Ms. Barker was until I ran across her obit and read her life accomplishments. Mom had to pick me up from school before the bell, with some fabricated note of why I needed to be excused–which the school figured out pretty quickly. Then, it was a hassle when I moved from ballet class one day a week up to three or four days a week. So the missing ballet slipper was the nail in the coffin to my dancing.

But, I loved it enough that when I went to the University of Washington, I enrolled in ballet from day one. After I moved to So Cal, I enrolled in ballet at the local community college and eventually at a dance troupe downtown Palm Springs. As I got older, my bones and joints found swimming to be a good substitute. In the end, my daughter and I both ended up as swimmers. Funny how that worked.

What I’m trying to say through all the reminiscing, is we really can’t control what our children do and it’s not healthy for them for us to try. We need to support them in their passions, even if they might not be ours. We need to let them take ownership and learn from their decisions and actions. Just my two cents worth.

What are your thoughts about controlling our children’s lives and letting go?


Is Losing Control the Same as Letting Go?


Swim buddies.

As an empty nester, there are times I wish I had more control over my kids’ lives. I don’t have much anymore. I remember the days when they’d actually do what I asked them. They believed the same way I did about everything including religion, politics and what books to read.

They watched the movies I’d check out from the library, and because I picked them out, they loved them. One day my son asked, “Mom, do they make movies without singing and dancing?” Yikes. I guess I was a little too into the classic musicals. I am happy, though, that my kids got to share that part of Americana. Many millennials never learned the words to On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe from “The Harvey Girls.” My aunt was surprised while visiting us when my son invited her to watch a movie. She was expecting Disney or Barney. She was thrilled to watch “Meet Me in St. Louis” with him.


Back when I got to pick out the movies.

Somewhere along the line of those perfect days, I lost control. Today, my kids have their own opinions about religion, politics, and life in general that aren’t exactly the same as mine. For example, I want to tell my son to pursue a career in business or law. My husband and I send him job openings in the Bay area, where he’s currently living. (FYI, We don’t want him to live that far away. We don’t like how expensive it is. It’s all wrong to us.)

Does he listen? He’s polite. Every time I text an employment opportunity, he thanks me and says, “that’s a good idea.” Then he goes and applies to one of the worst school districts where the standardized test scores are 2 in math and 7 in English. He decides to teach instead of what I want him to do—and in one of the most difficult situations possible. He thinks it will be a challenge.


High school graduation speech.

I can’t stop him. He’ll have to live his own life and learn his own life lessons. There’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. So, I guess I need to learn to let go since I’ve lost control anyway. I am proud that he’s an adult with his own dreams and goals.


The gang.