I have talked quite a bit on this blog about my insecurities and anxieties about my own capacity as a mother. Midway through my 40th year now, I spent about a year and a half examining the factors that have created my anxieties and feelings of inadequacy in mothering. I’m not sure how much it has helped. Sometimes I fall into the same patterns of behaving. But I keep searching for solutions.
I, like I suspect many people who use search terms “gaslighting”, “mean mothers”, “attachment disorders and anxiety” and find my blog, have had a traumatic childhood with a very controlling family dynamic.
For my part, I simply rebelled. Nobody valued my input and they sought to squelch my expressions. In response, I simply got louder and angrier than anyone else. My family controlled every aspect of who I was, from my bookish nature, to my lack of style in my clothes and hair, to the choices of boyfriends and the choice of universities I wanted to attend. And since nothing I did was good enough, I really didn’t try that hard to conform. Yet, when someone was hurting, I came to their rescue, and tried to validate their feelings and sort out their messes they created, even long after I left home.
I’ve been trying to sort out my past for only one reason. It affects my current relationships with my daughters and my husband (and, well, with friends sometimes). I know…it sounds so stupid, but I really don’t know what healthy relating during conflict and healthy parenting looks like in action. I’ve been trying to find out for the past 9 years or so. When you don’t know what healthy parenting looks like because it wasn’t modeled for you, and you see the crappy job OTHER parents are doing around you, how on earth do you know what it looks like? Seems like no one I know has this thing down.
I see a lot of parents who appear very controlling around here. Some of them know they have tendencies toward being controlling. They laugh and crack jokes about how they are OCD and need everything in it’s place, or too anxious/high-strung, or too perfectionist, and it trickles down to their children and they seem to acknowledge it isn’t healthy, but they don’t know what to do about it. Some of them even go so far as to quip how they are setting up funds for not for college, but therapy sessions for their kids when they are older. The more frightening ones are the ones who don’t think twice about their controlling behaviors and then lament why their kids don’t listen to them anymore.
For me, I tend to be way more laid back than my contemporaries…but I have my own control issues too that comes up in ways pertaining to their sensitivities that trigger my own.
I spent a lot of time and money on books trying to figure out how to be a better parent than my own were to me and my siblings. I have a small library of my own in my quest to be a good, healthy person and parent. I thought I had a lot of understanding of the problems…yet I still lack some tools. Heck…you should see how many times I screw up.
I’m still anxious, still more reactionary when under stress than I’d like to be. I have come to realize, I’m trying to control the uncontrollable nature of children and child-rearing, particularly MY children, who are anxious, independent thinkers (yes, already), and probably as stubborn as I am. It seems to me that some kids, particularly the sensitive, observant ones, seem to instinctively know their parents weaknesses and go right for them. Or so it feels. I know it’s just coincidental. Kids just do what they do, and we react based on long ago scripts embedded into us from our own childhood.
As a sensitive person who came out of an abusive, controlling family, I have a hyperawareness…a hypervigilant nature…and a tendency towards a perfectionist nature – but not in outward trappings (like clothing, appearance, or my home), but in getting this parenting thing ‘right’. And the more I want it to be right, the more I seem to be challenged in my desires.
It probably seems obvious to many of you parents out there, what healthy parenting looks like. I can honestly say, I really don’t know. I had a basic framework and it went like this: if it’s anything my mother or my three sisters (who are all very controlling in their own ways) would do, then I do the opposite (after researching, of course). I read all sorts of parenting books but I reject whole methods and programs and cherry-pick what I like about them, and you know why? Because I hate being controlled and following someone else’s plan feels like a form of control to me.
That’s not exactly a great thing to do.
Because even though we try not to be controlling, Mr. RSG and I are not exactly immune to it either, at least in some subtle ways and we do need some help.
While I don’t think my husband and I are nearly as controlling as our parents were, we DO try to exert some control in potentially damaging ways. Even something as relatively simple (or should be anyway) as getting my almost 6 and 7.5 year old to eat, frequently ends up in frustrations and tears. Eating healthy is becoming a slight battle with them because nearly every meal is an endless drama-laced scene of why they can’t eat what I make. For my 6 year old, this is majorly annoying. For my 7.5 year old, this is disastrous, because she disintegrates into irritability and meltdowns from being hypoglycemic, and her banshee-like shrieks cut right through me.
And we don’t even force my kids to eat liver, like my mother used to do with me and my siblings. We try for more kid friendly-fare and even sometimes fun things like smoothies which are a big hit one week, and then a dud the next. Ask me how much food gets rejected around here? I would love to send my kids to a country where they have little food and have them understand first hand how good they have it here (is that horrible to say?).
We try to be encouraging but when requests are ignored, we find ourselves growing frustrated. Just eat child, PLEASE! and give a million reasons why they’ll feel better and it’s good for them to eat.
I know it’s important to allow free expression of feelings. However, I have experienced extremely painful discomfort with allowing the free expression of ALL emotions on the spectrum, especially with the loud shrieking meltdowns of my middle child. They just cut to the marrow with me. I don’t know why that is. The sound of her voice is kind that’s like nails on a blackboard with me. The other two daughters voices are more lower, so they never seem to get as loud and screechy.
My youngest (6) has some deep fears of the dark and fear of nightmares which seem totally over the top at times and won’t go into the bathroom to get water or the bedroom to get her pajamas by herself or go to bed at night. Of course, to her, they make perfect sense. But after a while, it gets really old to be accommodating her when it just seems like she’s being stubborn about it.
It’s hard to meet them where they are at, especially when your sensitivities to their responses trigger something inside you that makes your skin crawl and you want to just react badly for no really good reason except your tired of the same old issues never getting any better. I still haven’t figured out why certain reactions make me more apt to react negatively than others. They just do.
I struggle to this day with my own reactions to things. I don’t know if I’m ever going to get it right. But still, I keep trying…even despite how hopeless it seems sometimes.
I checked out a book from the library what I think is a tremendous resource for me and maybe for other adult children of controlling parents. The book I am referring to is called If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World by Dan Neuharth, Ph.D.
Now, I can honestly I thought I did make peace with my past, long ago. And I might have continued to believe that, if I never had kids. Then EVERYTHING became stirred up again as I have been challenged on numerous fronts by my highly sensitive, spirited children. There have been times when I have been too reactive sometimes. Other times, I’m too laid back, or too protective (with some good reason, having a child with a social anxiety disorder would bring out the protective mama-bear instinct in any sensitive, highly attuned parent).
With a parent like me, no wonder my kids have issues.
I have read numerous books about toxic parenting, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder that arises out of abusive/neglectful parenting. I’ve been hard pressed to put it all together, not just to accept my feelings as valid, or to ‘heal my inner child’, but to figure out how to meet my kids needs’ when I’m feeling out of control. The few months of therapy didn’t really help much. Mr. RSG got laid off from work, so I had to stop going.
According to Neuharth, there is a three part process of recovering from a controlling family: Naming the Problem, Understanding the Problem, and Solving the Problem.
It’s sometimes hard to know you were in a controlling family without seeing how healthy parenting looks compared to controlling parenting, though I’ve been pretty certain about mine since before I left it. However, not all controlling families are the same. They take a few different forms and the complex nature of the control makes it very difficult to disentangle yourself from the mess. Many adults in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond are still struggling with current issues that can be traced to controlling families.
Neuharth’s book is a book full of clear tables and descriptions and real-life examples to help name and understand the problem. He has delineated 8 styles of controlling parenting and most controlling parents fall into one or more categories (I give a very brief explanation of them).
- Smothering – infantilizing their children
- Depriving – withholding love and protection
- Perfectionist – fixating on appearances, order, power, prestige
- Cultlike -not just religious cults, but even military families and those with parents with high profiles in corporations
- Chaotic – mercurial moods; acceptance and love one day, rejection the next
- Using – self-centered, identifying their children’s successes as proof of the parents’ success, belittling their children
- Abusing – verbal/emotional or physical/sexual abuse
- Childlike – incapable, needy parents who can’t protect their children from abusive partners, often needing their children to take care of them.
What does healthy parenting look like? The book contains this marvelous little table healthy parenting vs. overcontrolling parenting.
So how does parental overcontrol work?
Parental overcontrol is a potent, pervasive process akin to brainwashing. Controlling family brainwashing has three components:
- Twelve kinds of unhealthy control – The Dirty Dozen
- Distortions of responsibility through “Truth Abuse”
- Manipulations similar to the thought-reform techniques used by destructive cults.
I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to find an online version of his table about the Dirty Dozen, which contains the method, examples and potential consequences (low self esteem, anxiety, depression among them). For the sake of not infringing (too much) on copyright, I’ll just give you the methods listed – you’ll have to get the book to find out the examples and potential consequences of each.
The “Dirty Dozen” Methods of Unhealthy Parental Control
- Food control
- Body control
- Boundary control
- Social control
- Decision control
- Speech control
- Emotion control
- Thought control
I have experienced all these forms of unhealthy parental control…and even when my parents weren’t around, my older and younger sisters took over the tasks of controlling behaviors, even years after I left home, via phone calls and emails.
Neuharth gives 50 reasons why people control in unhealthy ways that fall into these categories – yeah, you’ll have to get the book to see what the fifty reasons are, there was not a great way to summarize them here.
- Cognitive Reasons
- Intergenerational Reasons
- Emotional Reasons
- Power/Gratification Reasons
- Unconscious/Existential Reasons
- Self-Esteem Reasons
- Interpersonal Reasons
- Circumstantial/societal Reasons
Sadly, even when are parents are no longer around, we internalize the messages and carry around the controlling voices in our heads, oftentimes sabotaging the best of our intentions and crippling our very capacities to grow and change and find freedom to live in ways that are healthy and appropriate for us and, in addition, let others (our spouses, our coworkers, our siblings, our children, our friends, our neighbors) live in ways that are healthy and appropriate for them. Truly we can not live and let live while we are busy trying to control others.
And of course, Neuharth’s book doesn’t just set out to name the problem and understand the problem, but to solve the problem as well.
From the first chapter, we find two truths:
- You aren’t responsible for what your parents did to you as a child, they are.
- You are responsible for what you do with your life now, your parents aren’t.
Part Three of his book details the three step process of solving the problem:
- Emotionally leaving home
- Bringing balance with your relationship with your parents
- Redefining your life
I haven’t gotten through the book yet, but I am really interested in working through some of the exercises of part three. From the controlling parents website, I really want to believe this book is a road map out of the chaos and confusion of my inner life. I’d like to believe the ‘promise’ of this book:
This book will enable you to quiet your “inner critics,” bring more balance to your moods and relationships, increase your optimism and assertiveness, and achieve greater autonomy. It offers a variety of ways to deal with stressful family holidays, parents who still control, and parental aging and mortality. It will help you to make peace with your past and break the cycle of control so you can avoid overcontrolling your own children and other loved ones.
I struggle, almost daily with my moods and relationships, and though my moodiness does have some benefits in the area of creativity (Dr. Kay Jamison does make a convincing argument that moodiness in individuals is often good for creativity, Anthony Storr makes a convincing argument that crappy childhoods do make for better writers and artists), I do act in ways that sometimes are controlling. Even though I might not be directly controlling others…my own moodiness and out-of-perspective reactions do serve as a form of indirect control on others. Just ask my husband. I’m sure he feels my moods affect our family in ways that feel like he’s being taken hostage by my (and come to think of it, my daughters’) moods.
I wrote the above earlier today, and now things are just awful (it’s bedtime).
For an example of my daughters’ moods, I spent one-on-one time with my 7.5 year old today. We went out to dinner and then to the bookstore. I sat and read her a book. Then she sat on my lap and I held her and we talked. It was just her and I for 2 hours. Now it’s time for bed, and my oldest wants to read a book to me. My 7.5 year old middle child is coming completely unglued (a twenty minute meltdown) because she wants me to read more to her before bedtime. Mr. RSG offered to read, and it’s not helping.
Simultaneously, 6 year old is screaming about not getting the book SHE wants to read and read by mommy.
I don’t understand it. Sometimes when we try to do right by them, nothing we do works.
I think I need to borrow Calvin’s duplicator and make more of me.
So…if I’m wondering, dear readers,
Did you have controlling parents?
Do you struggle with controlling others (your spouse, your children, other loved ones, or others outside your family)?
Have you struggled with moods as a result of controlling parents?
What have you done to break the cycle of control in your own life?