This inclination toward detachment often happens as a result of people needing to develop the capacity to rely on themselves early in adulthood, says psychotherapist Satya Doyle Byock, LPC. Having an overbearing parent makes detachment pretty difficult. Research has found that overbearing parents—or those who practice psychological control—have a detrimental effect on adolescents’ development, which, in turn, has effects on us as we enter adulthood. To give a specific definition, overbearing parents are those who don't have a sense of where their individuality ends and their children’s begins, which gives way to intrusion into what should be their offspring’s own decision-making.
Parents who are overbearing or even simply too available make detachment incredibly difficult, and as a result, some people—especially generations that are currently navigating the earlier stages of adulthood—are failing to form what Byock calls a "deep trust that one can survive and rely on themselves without their parents."
Karla Zambrano-Morrison, LMFT, adds that overbearing parents’ behavior includes trying to control and dominate things in their offspring’s life. “They may invade their [children’s] personal space, speak for their children, or even make decisions for them,” she says. While this doesn’t necessarily come from a malicious place, it's still problematic. Most often parents do this, says Zambrano-Morrison, because they feel they have that right as the parent—but they’re perhaps unintentionally putting a lot of pressure on their kids by way of setting unrealistic expectations.
"People's parents are often accessible any time of day via text, email, or phone, so differentiating one's self and the capacity to rely on oneself from the fact that their parents are immediately available for all sorts of needs is important." —psychotherapist Satya Doyle Byock, LPC
This creates a dependence that is not necessarily a failing on the part of the child. "Many millennials are categorized as entitled, lazy, and selfish. However, I often hear this generation express difficulty finding their own autonomy and place in the world, especially when parents seem to enable, or perhaps disable, their adult children from experiencing normal life progressions and consequences," says Higgins.
What this may look like in action, Higgins adds, is ongoing, unfettered financial support or rent-free living with no eviction date. Cleaning their children's room after developmentally appropriate ages, telling kids where they need to go and when they need to go, and being overly pushy about what career they should pursue (like taking up the family business, for instance) are all examples of how overbearing parents would behave toward their children.
Byock points out that it can also manifest as 24/7 emotional support. "People's parents are often accessible any time of day via text, email, or phone, so differentiating one's self and the capacity to rely on oneself from the fact that their parents are immediately available for all sorts of needs is important," she says.
Of course, this doesn’t mean all is lost. Read on for five tips from therapists that can help when you’re dealing with overbearing parents.
5 ways to deal with overbearing parents
Before getting into these strategies, understand that dealing with an overbearing parent is a complex issue with no one-size-fits-all solution. According to Byock, if everyone involved acknowledges what's going on and respects everyone's point of view, you’re off to a pretty good start.
1. Start therapy.
One strategy for accomplishing that piece of the puzzle is, of course, going to therapy—and that includes parents, Byock says, because "Their own sense of identity is wrapped up in the children they raised and their own deepest relationships may be with those children." For this reason, she says, it's really important for parents to be in therapy themselves so that they can learn to let go of and have more trust in their kids.
It's really crucial work, since living within the scope of a dependent dynamic on an ongoing basis has its consequences. "It can really create issues for both parent and adult child, and this shows up in many different ways," says Higgins, who notes that some of the ways include anxiety, unhealthy communication, misunderstanding, and depression.
2. Communicate with overbearing parents using "I" statements.
According to Higgins, avoiding statements that sound like “you make me feel like…” and “it’s just that when you…” can be beneficial when dealing with an overbearing parent because these statements can help keep the listener (i.e., your parent) from getting defensive.
For example, she says, saying something like "I really appreciate you wanting to help with this, but I want to figure this out myself.” is helpful because you don’t put the blame on the parent—you’re just communicating that this is something you think it’s important for you to do on your own. It can also strengthen the trust that your parents have in you, as it helps them see that you can, in fact, handle things yourself.
3. Use humor.
Humor can go a long way when you’re talking to your parents about their sense of entitlement to your life, says Higgins. While it’s inadvisable to make jokes at the expense of your parents, you can certainly tap into a funny memory you have together. From there, you can tie it back to how much you’ve grown and maybe do a bit of self-promotion to remind your parents that they taught you well.
4. Express gratitude to your overbearing parent(s).
By virtue of being the person who raised us, we have a lot to thank our parents for—whether or not they have helicopter-parent tendencies. Our parents also are their own people, who have their own emotions and face their own problems on a day-to-day basis, as we do. A little bit of gratitude can go a long way, Higgin says.
“[Express] gratitude for the effort behind their behavior. It really does soften the blow and helps them feel ‘seen’ for their efforts to caretake you,” she adds. Something like, "Mom, thanks for always having my best interest in mind. It's one of the amazing parts about having you as my mom." might do the trick.
5. Focus on working on yourself.
According to Zambrano-Morrison, introspection is a powerful tool when dealing with an overbearing parent. Because they’ve been building up this parenting style potentially over decades, it's not likely that your parents will change overnight, she adds. “Remember: We can't control them, but you can control what you do about your own personal growth,” she adds.
So, the next time a parent makes you feel guilty for remaining on their payroll or calls you 20 times in one day, consider using one of these five tips to mitigate the tension that having an overbearing parent might cause.
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