Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Is Your Parenting Psychologically Controlling?

Good parenting asks kids to DO things, not think or feel them.

I was raking big piles of leaves into the street, watching my youngest mucking out the chicken coop. And suddenly I remembered a phone call received late at night from a bereft friend.  

He and his son had been arguing. After storming off, his son had handed him a poem about a sad old man vainly trying to inflict his own twisted childhood on his son. My friend tried to laugh off the fact that his son's rebellion had taken such a creative turn, but he was hurt to his core.  

The argument had started when he had asked his son to do yard work with him. Normal end of summer stuff—piling wood, a bit of carpentry, pulling up dead vines, and a bit of work on the car. His son didn't want to—video games were calling.  

His father began a long story about how he had loved working with his father and how much he valued what he had learned about gardening and carpentry. He told his son how lucky he was to be doing yard work with him. These chores are building precious memories and important skills, he said. "You'll enjoy it. I loved the time I spent with my older relatives." His son snorted, stormed inside, and went back to Tomb Raider. Later that evening, he handed his father the poem.

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Talking to my friend, I found myself falling back into talking about parenting style. Parenting is complicated to research, because the reality of parenting is that parents try to influence kids in dozens of ways every day, for many different reasons, and with differences in how they try, the affect associated with their attempts, and with huge differences in their kids and how kids respond. In other words, parenting research reflects parenting reality.

One way that researchers over the last half century have tried to organize that complexity is to simplify it to three basic dimensions: warmth, behavioral control, and psychological control1. Together, these dimensions describe parenting style.  

  • Warmth refers to the extent to which parents convey their love and emotional support for the child. It can also be thought of as the extent to which parents recognize the unique needs of the child and understand that different people have different feelings and needs.
  • Behavioral control refers to the extent to which parents ask kids to constrain their behavior to meet the needs of others. Strictness is one way to think about it, but I think it is better conceptualized as the parents' expectation that the child conform to high standard—especially when it's difficult. It also captures the extent to which parents follow through on rules they set.
  • Psychological control, sometimes called psychological intrusiveness, is the extent to which parents try to control the child's emotional state or beliefs. For example, they may use guilt induction or make the child feel that they won't be loved if they don't do what parents want. The core of psychological control is that it assualts the child's self.

Parenting characterized by both high warmth and high control (authoritative parenting) is associated with good child outcomes. Children of parents who are both warm and high in behavioral control tend to do well in school, have high self-esteem, be independent, and have strong friendships.

Psychological control is not. Parents who are high in psychological control have kids who tend to be depressed, have low self-esteem, be anxious and lonely.  They are also more likely to be involved in anti-social behavior and delinquency.  

My friend's description of his interaction with his son was all about psychological control. He knew what he wanted his son to feel and he kept telling him he should and did feel it, even when his son clearly stated he did not.  

Asking a child to help with chores is a completely reasonable thing to do. In fact, doing chores helps kids feel responsible for others, develop a sense of competence, learn skills, and develop a sense of pride and altruism. It also helps them to learn appreciation for the things that others do for them.  

But asking them to like doing chores and to appreciate it is another thing. They may come to appreciate it over time.  But telling them they should feel happy about it, that they really like it, is psychologically controlling. You are asking the child to feel something they don't. Or, worse, you are telling them that they are bad people if they don't—another way to induce guilt.  

This is exemplified by parents who put food in their resistant toddler's mouth saying "You love this food! It is delicious!" when it's obvious that the toddler does not. Mislabeling the emotions of children confuses them and makes it difficult for them to know what they truly feel. It also erases the distinction between the self and needs of the child and the self and needs of the parent.

If mislabeling feelings is accompanied by implicit or explicit guilt induction for not feeling what the parent wants or if it is accompanied by love withdrawal, it is also manipulative.  

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Parenting works best when it is straightforward and issue oriented.  

  • Set the table, we're going to eat.
  • Do your homework, you have a test tomorrow.
  • Can you help me pile the wood? It's going to rain.
  • I need a hand building the pigeon coop. Can you come out and help hold the boards for me?

That is behavioral control.  

When parents make reasonable requests and the child resists (as all children do at least some of the time), it's easy to try to get them to feel happy about it. You want to do your homework.  

But the truth is, having the child do it cheerfully and talk about the joys of woodworking or raking leaves or mucking out chicken coops makes parents feel better about enforcing compliance. It's self-serving. A bit of complaint about not doing what the child wants and doing what the parent wants allows the child to assert psychological autonomy while being behaviorally compliant.  

My friend's argument with his son began because he had wanted his child to want to do chores with him. He wanted his son to feel appreciative of what he was teaching him through the chores. He wanted his son to love him. He was hurt that he didn't feel that. And so he told his son that he should feel that. That he had felt that when doing chores with his own parents. And that's when his son stormed off.

Assuming parent requests are reasonable, kids need to do what their parents request. They shouldn't have to like it.  

And, like my friend, they may actually find that they do come to appreciate some of the chores that they're asked to do. And their parents won't have to tell them that it is so.

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1. These three dimensions can also be called support or responsiveness, demandingness or strictness, and autonomy granting or other names capturing slightly different dimensions.  The basic idea, however, is the same.  

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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