Do Controlling Parents Increase Kids’ Risk of Addiction?

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Hear the phrase “controlling parent” and you may call to mind a mother or father who hovers incessantly over a child, meddling in their relationships and dictating how their child should act, dress, express and comport themselves. While it may seem that these parents want the best for their children - say, by ensuring they excel in personal, academic, and professional endeavors - such behaviors often do more harm than good.

In fact, recent research suggests one of the graver costs of having a controlling parent is that it places children at risk for developing an addiction later in life.

Controlling Parenting

Controlling parenting comes in a variety of shades and stripes but its main consequence, says Bart Soenens, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Ghent University, who has researched parenting styles, “is that children feel manipulated to behave in accordance with parental standards,” which undermines their wellbeing. Controlling parents achieve this end, Soenens explains, “through a variety of sometimes insidious techniques, such as guilt-induction (e.g., frequently expressing disappointment with the child’s behavior and pointing out the sacrifices parents have made for their children) and love withdrawal (showing considerably more affection when children behave well and perform up to standards and at the same time withdrawing affection when children trespass norms or have a failure experience).”

Being on the receiving end of such treatment leads children to perceive their caregiver’s love as contingent upon their compliance with a caregiver’s whims. As a result, says Soenens, “children feel torn between a desire to be loyal to their parent and a desire to react against the pressuring demands made by the parent.”

Fundamental Needs

Not surprisingly, the emotional fallout from controlling parenting has been linked to aggressive behavior, anxiety, depression, chronic stress, and loneliness - all of which happen to be individual risk factors for addiction[1]. In turn, controlling behaviors from caregivers typically prevent children from fulfilling three, fundamental needs crucial to any human’s ability to thrive. Such deprivation can increase a person’s propensity to overzealously rely upon substances or behaviors to create an illusion of need fulfillment.

The three fundamental needs that all humans possess include: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

  • Autonomy refers to the sense that you are your own, separate person, making your own, self-directed decisions out of your own, free will.
  • Relatedness denotes how connected you feel to others and how fulfilled you are by your relationships (romantic and platonic alike, as well as professional).
  • Competence encompasses that lasting feeling of faith in your ability to meet life’s challenges - and it can be enhanced or hindered by experiences of mastery or failure in life.

Controlling Parents in Action

Overcontrolling parents interfere with children’s sense of autonomy by pressuring them to do things against their will. They hamper their children’s need for competence by setting expectations so high that children can’t help feeling like failures. And they frustrate their need for relatedness by alienating their children through behaviors such as withdrawing love or impeding a child from forming healthy, autonomous relationships with others.

Consider the case of S, whose parents inculcated in her the belief that anything below perfect - whether that meant her performance on the soccer field or her academic transcript in high school and college - amounted to failure and disgrace. Her mother would barely acknowledge her if she got anything below an A on her final exams while her father would ridicule her for not practicing hard enough were she to miss a mid-game opportunity to shoot a wide open goal. S developed a compulsive relationship with exercise during her sophomore year of high school. She struggled to ever feel that her efforts at the gym were “enough” and often felt that her incessant and lengthy runs and gym sessions were her only way to get away from her parents’ pressure.

Or consider the case of Z, whose mother restricted her from seeing friends after school and on weekends, refused to let her date, and, once she left for college, insisted on visiting her daughter on a weekly basis, berated her daughter’s professors for not giving her enough individualized attention, and re-wrote nearly all of her daughter’s assignments. Z took to drinking on a daily basis in order to escape the pressure and shame entailed in her mother’s controlling behavior - an unhealthy coping skill she carried with her into her 30’s.

These individuals experienced the quashing of their own independence, became conditioned to act contrary to their own self-interest, and were driven to a behavior or substance to “cope” with the thwarting of their needs.

One additional factor in predicting whether someone will or will not develop an addiction, adds Soenens, is how able they are to regulate their emotions. Controlling parents often foster emotion dysregulation in their children, as their constant manipulation and meddling prevents kids from practicing how to self-soothe or cope on their own. (Let’s also not discount the years of pent up rage or despair an individual who was raised by a controlling parent may harbor, which may spill out into his or her adult life and heighten the appeal of certain excessive behaviors or substances that promise to offer some form of relief).

What’s the Alternative?

How, then, can parents better set their children up for success? Soenens points towards autonomy-supportive parenting - which, research shows, parents can be taught to adopt. This parenting style entails taking the child’s frame of reference rather than imposing one’s own agenda, offering relevant reasoning for requests and rule-setting, and and encouraging initiative by providing children choices (instead of dictating their every move).

Unfortunately, not every child can escape the far reaching consequences of controlling parenting, as not all parents are willing to adopt an autonomy-supportive style. For these individuals, it is of utmost importance to be mindful of how their rearing may have resulted in a deep sense of their fundamental needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence were - as well as other psychological consequences - so that they can work (either with the support of a mental health professional or with supportive others in their social network) to foster healthier relationships that lack the manipulation and invasiveness that characterized their early adulthood experiences. In this manner, individuals who were raised by controlling parents may be able to (gradually) override the damaging effects that a controlling parent placed upon their self-esteem and emotion regulation, replacing them with more supportive interactions that foster a greater sense of fulfillment, encourage them to experience their own competence, and provide them a more secure base from which to exercise their own autonomy.

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