6 Signs of Controlling Parenting and Why It's Harmful

There are different styles of child rearing and, unfortunately, the controlling style is one of the most prevalent. Here, instead of gently guiding the child’s authentic self, the parent tries to make and mold the child into whatever they think the child should be. 

As the term implies, the core indication of controlling parenting is a controlling approach towards the child. The controlling parenting style is sometimes also called authoritarian or helicopter parenting, and this is because the parent is acting in an authoritarian manner or is hovering over the child and controlling their every move. The methods used to implement it involve violating the child’s boundaries or not meeting the child’s true needs.

Signs of the Controlling Parenting Style

1. Unrealistic expectations and doomed to fail scenarios 

The child is expected to meet irrational, unhealthy, or simply unattainable standards, and is punished if and when they don’t. For example, your father tells you to do something but never explains how to do it, and then becomes angry if you can’t do it properly or immediately.

Oftentimes the child is set up for failure and they will experience negative consequences regardless of what they do and how they do it. For instance, your mother commands you to run to the store quickly to get groceries when it’s raining and then is upset when you come home wet. 

2. Unreasonable, unilateral rules and regulations 

Instead of talking to their children, negotiating, taking time to explain things, setting principles that apply to all members of the family and society, controlling parents set strict rules that apply only to the child, or only to certain people. These rules are unilateral, unreasonable, and unprincipled, and oftentimes don’t even have a proper explanation. 

“Go clean your room!” – “But why?” – “Because I said so!”

“Don’t smoke!” – But you smoke, dad.” – “Don’t argue with me and do what I say not what I do!”

Instead of appealing to the child’s self-interest, it’s an appeal to the power disparity between the parent and the child.

3. Punishments and controlling behavior

When the child is unwilling to comply or fails to match whatever is expected from them, they are controlled and punished. Again, often without any explanations except for “I’m your parent!” or “You’re bad!”

There are two types of controlling and punishing behavior. 

One: active or overt, which includes physical force, yelling, invading privacy, intimidation, threats, or restriction of movement. 

And two: passive or covert, which is manipulation, guilt-tripping, shaming, playing the victim, and so on. So the child is either simply forced to comply or is manipulated into compliance. And if they fail, they are punished for disobedience and imperfection. 

4. Lack of empathy, respect, and caring

In authoritarian environments, instead of being accepted as an equal human being, the child is generally seen as a subordinate. In contrast, the parent and other authority figures are seen as superiors. The child is also not allowed to question this dynamic or challenge the parent’s authority. This hierarchical dynamic manifests itself in lack of empathy, of respect, of warmth, and of caring for the child. 

Most parents are usually able to meet the child’s physical, basic needs (food, shelter, clothing), yet they are either emotionally unavailable, severely lacking, overbearing, or selfish.

5. Role-reversal

Since many controlling parents have strong narcissistic tendencies, they consciously or unconsciously believe that it’s the child’s purpose and responsibility to meet the parent’s needs, not vice versa. They see the child as property and as an object that is here to serve their needs and preferences. As a result, in many scenarios the child is forced to fit the role of a parent, and the parent takes on the role of a child. 

This role-reversal manifests where the child is treated as a surrogate parent—to the parent or to other family members. Here, the child is expected to take care of their parent’s emotional, economical, physical, or even sexual needs. If the child is unwilling or unable to do so, again, they are seen as being bad and are punished, forced, or manipulated into compliance. 

6. Infantilizing

Since controlling parents don’t see their child as a separate, individual entity, oftentimes they raise the child to be dependent. 

Because the parent believes (and behaves) as though the child is inferior and incapable to live according to their own self-interest, the parent thinks that they know what’s best for the child, even when the child is capable of making their own decisions and take calculated risks. 

This fosters dependency and stunts the child’s natural development because the child never develops adequate boundaries and a strong sense of identity. They usually have problems making their own decisions, building competency, or creating fulfilling and respectful relationships. Such a child often suffers from self-underestimation, indecisiveness, and dependency on others.

Were your parents or teachers controlling? How was it for you growing up in such an environment? Feel free to let us know in the comments below or write about it in your journal. 

Support my work by becoming a Patreon subscriber for $5/mo or more and get access to bonus articles. And check out my book Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults. Thanks!



Character Assassination—and How to Handle It

Empathy And Laughing At Others’ Misery

8 Reasons Why People Deny Childhood Trauma and Its Results