Mandy* says her mother has always had a controlling streak. In something of a nightmare scenario for most kids, when Mandy was 10, her mum got a job at her school. “My mother was telling me who I was and I wasn’t allowed to be friends with. She was prohibiting most people I made friends with,” Mandy says.
“She would actually leave her post during my lunchtime to see who I was hanging out with and if I was following her orders.” Mandy is now in her late 20s. Until a few years ago, she says her mother was still trying to control what she wore — going as far as to pre-approve what she could buy.
“There was one day where I was wearing an outfit that she didn’t like the combination and she started freaking out to the point where she went up to the door and blocked my exit. She would not allow me to leave the house,” Mandy says.
Mandy says the control extended to what she ate, and she developed an eating disorder between the ages of 11 and 15. “She was always incredibly controlling of what I was eating, always watching every move.”
Mandy says as a child, she would make decisions to please her mother and prevent fights in the house, which left her stressed and insecure. “Part of that insecurity led me to a period in my teens where I was suicidal for quite a long time, and I had a suicide attempt when I was 15,” she says.
She argues that her mother’s immature behaviours — controlling various aspects of her life and reacting angrily when Mandy didn’t follow the rules — has caused her significant problems as an adult.
Who are these emotionally immature parents?
Mandy’s experience isn’t uncommon. In her practice as a clinical psychologist, Lindsay Gibson has come across many people with similar stories. Ms Gibson was “astounded” at the emotional immaturity of parental behaviours reported by clients.
“As I’m listening to them I’m thinking, ‘oh my gosh, her father is acting like a four-year-old, or her mother sounds like a 14-year-old’.” Ms Gibson has seen a range of emotional immaturity – from parents who can be volatile and hysterical, through to those who are cold and rejecting. Many also exhibit controlling behaviours.
She’s encountered this problem so often, she wrote a book about it. These troubled relationships can have significant long-term impacts on children when they become adults themselves, she says. One of these impacts can be a disregard for their own feelings and instincts.
“They [the parent] teach you to doubt yourself and mistrust your emotional needs, and you can imagine how that plays out later when that person has to figure out what they want to do for a living or decide who to marry,” Ms Gibson says.
“All these things that have to come from an internal sense of guidance.” Mandy isn’t a client of Ms Gibson’s, but says what Ms Gibson describes is similar to the impacts her mother had on her. She finally moved out of her parents’ home last year and has since started seeing a therapist.
“Sometimes a trauma response isn’t just like having panic attacks, sometimes it’s also being a people pleaser because I just want to lessen the conflict.” Ms Gibson argues that emotionally immature parents grew up at a time when there was little emphasis on the emotional needs of children.
Instead, the focus was on the physical needs of children — things like reducing levels of child labour and malnutrition. That changed around the middle of the century. “Around about the 1950s, there was a paediatrician, Benjamin Spock, who began to push this idea that children had emotional needs and that meeting the child’s emotional needs had tremendous importance in their adult life. And so there was an awakening,” Ms Gibson says.
Going no contact
The main strategy advised by psychologists when it comes to parents who may be overbearing or manipulative is to set firm boundaries or guidelines around how other people can behave towards you. Examples of behaviours people might push back on include unwanted visits, or unwelcome advice about how a child is being raised, Ms Gibson says.
“And if you learn how to say no in whatever awkward, frightened, shy way that you want to say no, but you just continue to say what your limits are, that really works pretty well, because emotionally immature people are not prepared for repetition,” she says.
“That’s a very hard thing for an adult child to do, but it can be done and that’s the way to do it.” Boundaries are something Mandy says she tried to establish with her parents many times over, but for her it never quite worked. “And of course it all got worse when they realised that I was queer. I kept establishing boundaries around it where I was like, ‘look, my identity is not up for debate’. That was completely dismissed,” she says.
By 2020 she had finally saved enough money to move out of her parents’ home for good. She’s had no contact with them for the past six months. Mandy now helps run an online forum where adult children who have difficult relationships with their parents can swap survival stories, share encouragement and try to heal.
As for how to be a good parent? Ms Gibson says at its core, it’s simple.
“All you have to do is to not only love your child, but be able to see your child as a unique individual who has a real internal world of their own, where everything is just as important as it is to the adult, and there have always been parents who had that sensitivity, thank goodness,” she says.
Melitta Schmideberg noted in 1948 how emotional deprivation could lead parents to treat their children (unconsciously) as substitute parent figures.”Spousification” and “parental child” (Minuchin) offered alternative concepts exploring the same phenomenon; while the theme of intergenerational continuity in such violations of personal boundaries was further examined.
Eric Berne touched on the dangers of parents and children having a symmetrical, rather than asymmetrical relationship, as when an absent spouse is replaced by the eldest child; and Virginia Satir wrote of “the role-function discrepancy…where the son gets into a head-of-the-family role, commonly that of the father”.
Object relations theory highlighted how the child’s false self is called into being when it is forced prematurely to take excessive care of the parental object; and John Bowlby looked at what he called “compulsive caregiving” among the anxiously attached, as a result of a parent inverting the normal relationship and pressuring the child to be an attachment figure for them.
All such aspects of disturbed and inverted parenting patterns have been drawn under the umbrella of the wider phenomenon of parentification – with the result (critics suggest) that on occasion “ironically the concept of parentification has…been as over-burdened as the child it often describes
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