Do You Have Paranoid and Controlling Parents?

The complex trauma of parents who are hysterical, defensive, and paranoid.

Posted May 19, 2020

Not all trauma is visible. Unlike PTSD that comes from a one-off event such as an accident, complex trauma that comes from toxic family dynamics is chronic. When you are stuck with a dysfunctional, symbiotic relationship with your parents, your wounds can remain unnoticed for years.

Anxiety is a normal part of parenting. For some parents, however, their past or personality limitations stop them from being the best parents they can be. Their unregulated and overwhelming angst will inevitably spill over to how they relate to their children, affecting them in invisible but long-lasting ways. 

In this article, we will focus on discussing the characteristics of parents who tend to be "fearful and controlling," whose hyper-defensive behaviours are mostly driven by their fears of the world and defensiveness against their own limitations.

Characteristics of Parents With Paranoid and Controlling Tendencies

They are anxious and paranoid

To parents with fearful and controlling tendencies, the world is full of danger. They are hyper-vigilant, and always living on the border of paranoia. They are constantly scanning the environment for threat signals, and see the worst in everything. They over-analyse all interactions with people and assume others have ulterior motives.

Under stress, they psychologically regress to extremist thinking, where the world gets split into the good camp and the bad camp; In their mind, people are divided between tyrants and the abused, the ones who blame and the faulty, the persecutor and the victim.

They are possessive and controlling

Parents with fearful and controlling tendencies take pride in their role as your protector. However, they may not realise how they have roped you into a symbiotic relationship.

With their excessive caretaking, they expect loyalty and obedience from you. They may limit your social life, pull you into a protective bubble, and see your need to go and have your own life as a form of betrayal. 

If they could not control you with orders and restrictions, they may resort to mentally manipulative strategies such as inducing guilt in you, threatening to abandon you, or withdrawing financial support from you. They may even recruit you to be "on their side" against their spouse, which places you in an impossible dilemma.

They are cold and cannot handle intimacy

These parents’ default position holds that the world is their enemy, and sometimes this stance spill over to how they relate to you. They are intimidated by the tender feelings that can come from within, so whenever they feel vulnerable, they immediately defend by shutting down.

You may find that just as you start to share a warm and intimate moment with them, they will suddenly turn away, make a harsh comment, or abruptly end the conversation. You may be left feeling shocked and disappointed, even beating yourself up for having trusted in the first place. 

They are extremely defensive

To protect their ego, fearful and controlling parents are defensive and reactive. They dread being seen by others, but mostly they cannot tolerate the shame of seeing their own limits.

To defend against their own vulnerabilities, they become extremely defensive to criticism and blame. They take conflicts personally, and hardly ever apologise; you almost cannot disagree with them without receiving a forceful backlash.

They are particularly sensitive to any signs of being lied to, subjugated, humiliated or betrayed. Whenever they sense they may be losing power, they react forcefully, summoning hostile or passive-aggressive means such as belligerence, verbal violence,  threats, unreasonable demands, temper tantrums and complete withdrawal.

The defence mechanisms they employ the most are outward projection and displacement. Since they cannot digest their own feelings in a healthy way, they project it onto the outside world and other people. When they feel ashamed of themselves, for instance, they imagine that someone is humiliating them. When they are angry at themselves, they feel someone is attacking them.

It is difficult for them to become aware of their own mechanism as they rarely reflect on themselves. They don’t look inside, as they fear when they do, they may find overwhelming shame or emptiness. Even their projections can be unbearable for those around them; they are unlikely to want to seek help from a professional or talk to someone about their true struggles. 

They cannot regulate their emotions

Parents with fearful and controlling tendencies are always on edge; they live with a high amount of stress that is always close to boiling over. Even minor mishaps and injuries can overwhelm them and, when they do, they can break out into a hysterical state, scream, cry, or completely give up on adult responsibilities. Being a witness to these disturbing situations might have traumatised you when you were young. Even as an adult, you may still fear your own and other peoples’ anger.

What Happened to Them?

Unlike some other anxious parents who appear meek and vulnerable, these parents have an impenetrable "hard shell." They are usually high flyers in their careers, and to the outside world, they are competent and confident people. However, underneath their facade lies layers of defensive denial. In truth, their fierceness is there to compensate for how lost and unloved they feel for most of their lives.

Underneath these parents’ hard shell is someone who carries a painful past. They cannot provide you with the peace and nurturance that they had never received. To understand their inner world, imagine how you feel when you are at your most frightened and vulnerable.

To them, life is precarious, utterly unpredictable, and groundless. Their parents had not guided or protected them, and they were left to find their own path from a terribly young age. Their own parents are mostly weak or absent, so at some point in their life, perhaps on an unconscious level, they decided to become the strong parent they have longed for. 

Since their own sense of invincibility — the hard shell that you see —  is the only thing that they could count on, they will do anything they can to protect it. This is why they demand compliance from others to reinforce their authority and are extremely defensive and reactive to anything that would threaten their sense of control. 

Freeing Yourself

A big step to freeing yourself is to recognise how much you have sacrificed in order to parent your parents, either explicitly or inadvertently. They may be living vicariously through you or have relied on you to be their confidante. Having been indoctrinated all these years, you have now internalised the pressure to stay behind to protect them. Whenever you try to walk away, you feel guilty. 

It can be both irritating and suffocating when your parent repeatedly comes up with groundless fears, makes false assumptions, or preaches conspiracy theories. Perhaps you have realised by now that no amount of reassurance will ease their neuroses, but you still feel the urge to challenge or reason with them.

More than being futile, these efforts will likely backfire.  Remember, their fears are real to them. In fact, these are the pillars of their existence. Therefore, try not to ridicule, tease, or undermine their fear. Let them have their say. You do not have to agree with everything they say, but you can empathise with how hard it is to feel worries.

Sometimes, to liberate yourself from the constant loop of disappointment and hurt, you must relinquish the hope that they will treat you with the love and respect you need.

When you take the plunge to create healthy separation from them, they may react with aggression, threats or hysteria. They may frame you as an ungrateful or selfish traitor.

Unfortunately, the rigidity of their lifelong defence mechanisms prevents them from ever adopting a mature perspective. It can be excruciating to grapple with, but the reality is that no amount of explanation will gain you justice or fairness. They may continue to be overbearing, tyrannical, and hyper defensive for the rest of their life, and there is little you can do about it. By releasing your judgment and the need to control, you are freeing yourself.

You may find that you have internalised some of their fears of the world. Fortunately, new findings in neuroscience have given us hope. It is entirely possible for you to rewire the anxiety-prone neuropathways and reopen the doors to the adventures life has to offer.

Imagine a world where you are free from excessive worries — how would you think, feel, act and perform differently? What would you start doing, and what would you stop doing? How would you look from the outside, and how would you feel from the inside?

Identify the virtues and values you would like to manifest, and the steps you need to take to get there. Slowly but surely, evidence of your independence and autonomy will replace the old memories of being trapped by and with your controlling parent. Instead of despair and dependency, confidence and self-agency will become your new defaults.

Whether they are living or dead, emotionally separating from your parents is an essential step in your journey from healing to thriving. Separating from your parent does not have to mean completely cutting contact (thought that may be necessary for some), but reclaiming a life that is authentically yours. It is never too late to liberate yourself.