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Child Development

Parents' Behavioral Control vs. Psychological Control

What are they and why are they important for children’s development?

Researchers who study parenting and child development distinguish between behavioral control and psychological control. Behavioral control involves parents’ attempts to set clear rules and monitor children’s activities, whereas psychological control involves parents’ attempts to place limits on children’s thoughts and feelings.

Parents’ behavioral control is generally related to better child development outcomes. For example, children and adolescents are less likely to use drugs and engage in risky behaviors if their parents set rules and limits on their behavior (e.g., curfews for being home by a certain time, letting parents know where they are going and who they will be with).

Karolina Grabowska/Pexels
Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Parents’ psychological control, by contrast, is generally related to worse child development outcomes. For example, children and adolescents are more likely to be anxious and depressed if their parents use psychologically controlling strategies to influence their children’s thoughts and feelings. Two common strategies involved in psychological control are guilt induction (making children feel guilty if they don’t share parents’ thoughts and feelings) and love withdrawal (making children feel unloved if they don’t share parents’ thoughts and feelings).

Despite these general patterns of findings, some interesting cultural differences exist. In particular, behavioral control is more common in some cultural contexts than in others, is likely to decrease over time as children develop sooner in some cultural contexts than in others, and is associated with other aspects of parenting in different ways across cultures.

For example, in some cultural contexts, parents who use more behavioral control are also warmer and more affectionate toward their children, whereas in other cultural contexts, more behavioral control is unrelated to parents’ warmth or is related to less parental warmth. Across cultures, parents typically decrease their behavioral control as children move through adolescence, although there are cultural differences in ages at which parents (and adolescents) think parents should cede control to adolescents and in rates of change in control over time.

In contrast to behavioral control’s cultural variability, psychological control appears to be detrimental to children’s well-being across cultural contexts. What makes psychological control especially problematic is that it tends to devalue children’s own experiences and disrespect their individuality. Especially as children enter adolescence, psychological control is related to parents’ inability to recognize that they can be different from yet still connected to their children.

Across cultural contexts, children and adolescents recognize that their parents have legitimate authority over some aspects of their lives. Children and adolescents are more likely to believe their parents have legitimate authority over domains involving morals, health, and safety than over personal domains (such as what clothes an adolescent is allowed to wear or what music an adolescent listens to). In some cultural groups, adolescents are more likely to believe they must go along with parents even when they disagree, whereas in other cultural groups, adolescents expect to be able to express their disagreement and follow their own preferences. Effects of parents’ behavioral and psychological control on children’s well-being depend, in part, on whether parents are perceived as trying to assert control in areas in which they have legitimate authority or not.

The bottom line for parents is that setting clear expectations for behavior and monitoring children’s and adolescents' activities can help prevent problem behaviors. But allow children and adolescents to experience their own thoughts and feelings without trying to make them feel guilty or unloved if these thoughts and feelings are different from parents’ own. And, pay attention to cultural contexts and children’s development over time to adjust parenting in response to children’s changing needs as they gain more independence in adolescence.

More from Jennifer E. Lansford, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today