When you think back to your childhood, do you remember being footloose and fancy-free? Or do you recall military-like regimented schedules and tight-fisted rules?
For me, it’s a little of both.
You see, my parents had very different parenting styles and, in fact, very different styles in general. My father was very strict, controlling, domineering, and demanding. My mother was kind, warm, relaxed, and fun.
This gave our family a very strange dynamic, but I’m sorry to say that my father’s influence over me and my sister has had more far-reaching effects on us.
Did you experience the same thing as a kid?
If you display these nine traits, you probably grew up in a controlling family, and it has greatly affected your life.
1) Contempt for/Fear of authority
I put this at the top of my list for selfish reasons. It’s the trait I can most closely associate with.
My father was a strict disciplinarian and had tight rules for pretty much every aspect of life in our household.
He took the mantra “A place for everything and everything in its place” to new heights.
He demanded obedience, and his anger was extremely intimidating.
And I think that’s why I grew up with much more than a healthy distrust of authority figures.
I never had any close relationships with coaches or teachers, even though I saw that many of my friends did.
And when I became a sullen teen, I was resentful of basically every institution that held authority, from school to government to the police.
I think I felt a mixture of fear of upsetting any authority and contempt at the fact that they had power over my life.
And though I’m speaking in the past, this really hasn’t changed much in my adult life.
2) Low self-confidence
If you have low self-confidence, it may very well be a result of the way that you were parented.
Self-confidence is rooted in a concept of the self as adequate and able, effective at doing certain things and acting independently.
The last point is the key because independence is what’s so often lost in a controlling household.
Controlling parents tend to swoop in (helicopter parents) and interfere in all aspects of their children’s lives.
And while they might be doing this out of a desire to care for and protect, what it really does is dent the children a chance to develop autonomy, “the state of being the source of your own behavior”.
Without a sense of control over their own lives, children can feel lost and in need of external direction, and this can lead to poor confidence in themselves.
3) Negative self-concept
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.”
This Daily Affirmation from an old Saturday Night Live sketch may seem like a laugh to many people for different reasons.
People with positive self-concepts don’t need it, and people with negative self-concepts would never believe it.
See, that’s because they think they’re not good enough or smart enough, and it’s a trait shared by so many people who grew up in controlling families.
What’s at the root of this negativity is having been controlled as a child and never having a true feeling of pride in one’s own accomplishments.
If your parents always interfered, set strict rules, didn’t let you make decisions, and didn’t encourage independence, you’re probably left feeling inadequate.
It’s as though they always taught you that they need to be in control because you’re not good enough. And that’s a very hard self-concept to get away from.
Different people react differently to strict control.
Some put their heads down and just do what they’re told.
Others try to escape or hide away from it like I did.
But people like my sister rebel.
Maybe it’s because she was older or just angrier, but when rules got tighter in our teenage years, my sister just cranked up her corresponding level of disobedience.
She got into a party scene that was full of drugs and other illegal activities. She got piercings and tattoos and somehow successfully hid them from our parents.
She pushed all the boundaries in an attempt to push off the yoke of control that she felt.
And years later, though she has calmed down a lot, she’s still very much a rebel and a rule-breaker.
5) Anger and aggression
Another trait that’s related to a controlling household and controlling parents is anger and aggression.
But perhaps it’s not the type of anger that you’d expect.
I have a friend who has been in a relationship with a woman from another culture for ten years now.
He still struggles not only with cross-cultural differences but also with one really significant factor – her anger.
He’s very much a calm, laid-back, rational person, so when confronted with her anger, he told me he was just completely shocked and didn’t know what to do.
To him, the tiniest thing could set her off into vicious tirades, and it seemed almost random.
Until they went to couples therapy and looked deeper into what was going on.
It turns out that what was for him an innocent question about lunch like “Do you want to have some soup?” felt to her like control. She bristled at the thought of being told what to eat because her whole childhood had been so incredibly strict and controlled.
They’re working on it now that he knows her triggers and she’s more able to recognize his intentions, but this deep-seated anger is the result of having a very controlled upbringing.
6) Difficulty regulating your emotions
Like the example I just gave, people who grew up in controlling households often have trouble regulating their emotions like anger but also everything else, like fear, disgust, sadness, and even surprise and happiness.
They have lower emotional intelligence to help them in difficult situations.
Why does this result from having experienced controlling families?
One reason is based on the examples set by the people in control.
For example, my father would often explode in anger at things most people might find insignificant. So, what that could do is teach me an inappropriate level of emotional expression.
The other reason is that people who grew up with a lot of control don’t feel as in control of their emotions. They don’t feel ownership of them because they didn’t learn how to express themselves freely as kids.
Codependency is a toxic relationship behavior that affects a lot of people who were controlled in their youth.
A codependent person latches on to a user, creating a dysfunctional couple.
The user needs someone to support them through some behavior, often in the form of substance abuse.
The codependent has such a strong desire to be needed that they create or enable the conditions that keep the other person in need, and the whole thing is a hot mess.
This happens because, as kids, they didn’t feel like individuals who could be someone or contribute something to the family unit.
Instead, they felt replaceable, like a cog in a much larger machine that didn’t care about them.
8) Eating disorders
If you have an eating disorder, it’s very likely linked to growing up in a controlling family.
In the case of anorexia nervosa, it’s very normal for the afflicted to have a controlling, narcissistic mother and an absent or passive father.
This power imbalance leads to heavy control by mothers of their children, especially their daughters.
And then a disorder develops as a rebellion – the child feels no agency, so acts on the only thing they know they truly can control, which is their body.
Overeating, on the other hand, can be a sign of poor impulse control, which again can lead to not learning agency at an early age.
When children grow up and learn to make decisions and take responsibility for their own actions, they can become healthy adults.
But in controlling families, this often doesn’t happen and can lead to very serious consequences.
Research has linked anxiety to control in a distinct way.
Parents with anxiety tend to be more controlling. Children growing up in controlling families tend to be more anxious.
So, if you have anxiety, it may be because you learned this from your parents, essentially inheriting theirs.
Anxious parents worry more and interfere more in their children’s lives, reducing their chances of developing autonomy.
And then, the children grow up feeling anxious because they lack power and feel they’re not properly in control of their lives.
It can be a vicious cycle, but one you can break.
If you grew up in a controlling family like me, you may recognize some of these traits in yourself. And that’s the first step to moving on and developing yourself as an adult.