Controlling Mothers and Other Lessons of Love

TV sitcoms and movies are full of amusing portrayals of controlling mothers. Interestingly, most of the people who ask me serious questions on this subject are, in fact, mothers themselves, and they’re usually referring to experiences with their own mothers.

Though there are many reasons why a mother will try to control her children’s lives, the most basic is the mistaken idea that she can control more than what she really can. Let’s face it: Most mothers want to make everything better for their kids, and this is certainly an essential element of raising a young child. But as children become adults, no such thing is possible. The grown child is every bit as much an individual as the mother herself.

Many mothers tell me that they feel they should be able to fix everything for their child. Leaving aside the fact that the child is no longer a child, this is simply unrealistic. Adults are faced with many different choices, primarily because of their increased capacity for cognition. Thinking is an adult’s primary responsibility and nobody can do it for him or her. Controlling mothers who appear to “mean well” are actually ignoring this fact. Not only do they fail to get the control they’re looking for, but they also end up with resentment from their loved ones and a whole lot of unnecessary stress.

So, are love and control the same thing? Clearly not. When you truly love someone (including your child), you value his or her autonomy and individuality. You want them to be who they really are. Of course, you hope ‘who they are’ will be someone happy and productive, but you still leave them to be who they are. Controlling gets in the way of this natural process. A manipulative parent actually NEEDS the child to ‘be’ a certain way, and has a stake in it that goes far beyond good wishes and love. It becomes all about the parent — not the child. The child becomes an extension of the unhealthy parent’s ego, meaning that he or she takes it personally when the child doesn’t do as well as mom (or dad) thinks the child should do. The dysfunctional parent lives through the child; it may be subtle, but the attitude is not lost on the child.

Many parents believe that their children are a reflection on them, and this is, indeed, a good indication of personal responsibility when kids are still very young. But when they grow into individuals with their own personalities, no parent can totally control them. Variables such as intelligence, impulsivity, generosity, initiative and work ethic vary widely from one individual to another, and parents must learn to accept that fact. Otherwise, a parent becomes controlling and manipulative, both of which are stressful and ineffective.

Not all mothers who control their children fully realize they’re doing it. Consider the case of a mother who is competent and knowledgeable about many things. The grown daughter sees and admires this, and counts on mom for good advice; often following through on what she says. But sometimes she doesn’t agree with her mother, and chooses to go her own way. Her mother — confident in her ability to usually be right — becomes irate over her grown daughter’s ‘disobedience.’

Mom is missing the fact that her daughter has her own mind, autonomy and individuality. There’s no way that two adults are always going to agree on everything, and if mother doesn’t get upset when everyone doesn’t automatically agree with her, then she ought not to be upset when her daughter doesn’t, either.

Parents have to be careful about what they convey to their kids. If they’re too eager to decide what’s best for them, this tells the child that, ‘You’re not smart enough to figure this out for yourself.’ True self-esteem resides in confidence in your ability to think for yourself, and ‘You can’t think for yourself’ conveys anything but self-esteem. Even with young kids, it’s wise to think things out WITH them, not FOR them. Parents should take over only in situations where a child is too young to understand. With grown children, it’s insulting for a parent to try to do their thinking for them.

The primary task of a good mother is NOT to do everything for her children. In fact, the primary task of any parent is to bring up offspring who are autonomous and have the confidence to think for themselves. It’s perfectly OK to gain personal fulfillment from watching your kids develop, but at the same time, their lives are not about you. Their lives are about themselves. The parents’ task is to launch them, not drive them.

A failure to see this is a lot of what makes controlling mothers the subject of so much humor and criticism. Control and love simply cannot (peacefully) coexist between a parent and an adult child.