Why is My Mom so Controlling?
If you are struggling with a controlling mom, the following story might seem familiar:
Carrie, a 29 year old woman, is out with some friends for a drink. Her phone starts vibrating, she looks down to see that her mom is calling. Sighing, she sends it to voicemail and puts her phone in her purse. Carrie is planning on buying a new car, and her mom seems to have endless questions about the purchase of the vehicle.
Later, while waiting on her second drink, she checks her text messages. It’s her mom again! Seriously! More questions, this time about the car loan that Carrie is applying for.
What the hell is wrong with her mom?
Why Does My Mom Want to Control Me?
Carrie’s mom keeps pushing her for information that is personal, asking so many questions that Carrie feels like her mom has no respect for her privacy. In fact, all this excessive attention makes Carrie feel like she is a five year old child, not an adult woman.
Carrie feels emotionally tangled. At first, she feels anger at her mom’s controlling behavior. And then she feels a sad sense of duty to keep her mom in the loop with her personal decisions.
The same trio of question keeps repeating in Carrie’s thoughts- why is my mom so controlling? Why does she want to control me? How can I stop her from controlling me?
Yes, Your Mom Has Control Issues
One of the most common problems for adult children is the destructive behavior of a controlling parent. Truthfully, it is most often the mother of the family who struggles with controlling behavior. Although less likely, there are families where both parents’ cross boundaries and attempt to control their adult children.
When Your Mom Is Manipulative And Disrespectful
Like some type of unbalanced Sherlock Holmes, she can be a sneaky detective, trying her best to uncover private details from her adult children. She will use guilt, shame and manipulation to discover any information that she feels she entitled to know.
Relying on her authority and her sense of entitlement, she will pressure you to offer details of your life that you would rather keep private. She will guilt you with the idea that you are not “respecting” her as your mother. And furthermore, if you aren’t doing anything wrong, why won’t you share your life with her?
Does Your Mom Want to Control Everything?
As an adult child, you are entitled to privacy around your life and your choices. This is completely true if you are financially independent. Unfortunately, if you are still relying financially on your parents to some extent, you are leaving the door open for some parental influence and opinion.
In this financial dynamic, money = freedom. Do your best to increase your income to help you move into a total self-supporting lifestyle.
Reasons Why Your Mom Is So Controlling
Most moms would be offended if they were told that they had control issues! No one likes to be labeled a control freak! We prefer words like “caring” OR “involved” OR “concerned” OR “older and wiser” to describe our controlling behavior. These softer terms help controlling women frame their behavior as acceptable rather than destructive.
As humans prone to patterns, we function in an unconscious cycle until something incredibly painful wakes us up from our pre-programmed behavior. Your controlling mother is no different! So often the reasons for our unhealthy behavior is hidden from our conscious understanding.
Here are some hidden reasons that can cause controlling behavior between an adult child and parent:
Your Mother Is Controlling Because She Was Controlled
Fact: Most of our behavior is unconscious. We repeat cycles and patterns because it was the cycle that we knew and responded to in our early childhood homes. Most controlling moms are caught in a unconscious cycle of repeating their family behavior.
Despite not wanting to be “like our moms” without an intentional examination of our behavior, we will repeat what we learned from our family.
Your mom is controlling because she was controlled. She feels safe repeating the behavior that she learned. For many women, the idea of allowing their adult children privacy is frightening. There is an underlying fear that causes some moms to believe that if they stay overinvolved in their child’s life, they will be able to protect their grown child from danger or harmful choices.
We “Repeat” Until We “Repair”
Take some time and reflect upon your mom’s relationships with her mom. Look for patterns of dysfunction and enmeshment in the generational family history. Identify behaviors that are fear based and try to keep in mind that most of your mom’s controlling choices are hidden from her. It is very likely that she has never thought about why she does what she does when she crosses your boundaries.
The truth is, most people do not make a conscious choice about their behavior patterns. We fail to understand that we have a high probability of repeating our family dysfunction. Frankly, one of the best moments for growth is when we realize that we are dangerously close to being “just like our mother”.
Clear Communication About Controlling Behavior Is Important
As a coach, I would encourage you to begin a gentle conversation with your mom. Respectfully talk to her about your observations and the feelings that you are experiencing because of her invasive behavior. She might be offended at first, but there is no change without honest communication.
Your Mom Uses Control To Help Her Manage Her Fear
Let’s face it, most of our behavior as humans originates from hidden fear. We allow to fear to direct many of our choices and often it escalates our dysfunctional behavior. Most controlling moms are functioning from a place of fear.
Becoming a parent opens a world of fear that did not exist prior to having children. Before you had kids you were invincible and self-reliant, or at least that is what you told yourself!
Once you have a child, your whole world becomes focused on protecting the little soul that is sleeping in your arms. Everything is terrifying and sometimes the simplest things can grab your heart and squeeze it with deep fear.
Fear Can Be Helpful, But It Can Destroy Relationships
When a mother or parent gets stuck in a cycle of fear, they will become intrusive and suspicious. Operating from a false sense of protecting their grown child, they feel entitled to judge the choices and details of your life. This is a distorted sense of safety; they have convinced themselves that they will be able to spot potential danger on the horizon.
This type of parent relies on general suspicion and overreaching warnings about life’s obstacles and tragedies.
My Story: Fear Based Limiting Beliefs Were Part Of My Childhood
When I was growing up my mom had a saying that she would utter when she felt defeated. She would say “Live in hope, die in despair”. After hearing that repeatedly, I internalized it as a life truth.
I began to believe that things would never work out for me, despite my hopes and efforts. It was a banner over my life, effectively saying: don’t get your hopes up, because you will be disappointed.
After realizing how destructive that belief was in my life, I began to challenge it. Trying to identify where such fear and negatively had come from, I asked my mom where she learned that saying. She quickly replied: Oh, your grandma always said that to me!
You Might Be Repeating A Fear Based Cycle
And- Bullseye!!!!– there was the origin of fear and control in my family! My mom grew up hearing that life was disappointing and would end in despair. She internalized that idea and then unconsciously implanted that same fear as she parented myself and my siblings.
The women in the generations before me had difficult lives. Many of the women in my family had married abusive men. It is no surprise that this negative fear-based saying took hold in my female ancestors. They relied on that saying to offer some type of comfort and predictability during their despair.
Your Mom Is Unable To Focus On Her Own Problems
Some moms are caught in a cycle of co-dependence. Co-dependent people attempt to control others to help them feel safe and needed. It is very common for co-dependent women to focus on their children in an effort to help them avoid their own problems. If they can influence their adult kids in a way that makes them feel important, then mom can avoid her internal unhappiness surrounding her own life.
Co-dependent folks will often use the guise of helping and serving others as a method to feel powerful. Often, they have unresolved unhappiness in their own lives and choose to ignore it by engaging other people’s problems/choices.
Can’t My Mom See That She Is A Control Freak?
For many middle-aged women, having adult kids opens up identity issues. No longer seen as sexy, youthful or relevant, many midlife women use controlling behavior to hide their pain. These women do not want to confront their own uncomfortable emotions surrounding life’s disappointments. They might be in an unhappy marriage, or wrestling with a sense of uncertainty around aging.
They might be struggling with a deep sense of having lost their true self as they have nurtured families. It is much easier to focus energy on adult children in a desperate attempt to keep their sense of maternal importance.
Moms who are avoiding confronting their own fear and uncertainty will focus on controlling their grown children to achieve a sense of emotional balance.
Your Controlling Mom Still Sees You As A Child
If you are a mom, your children will always be your babies. I have two children and although I recognize them as adults, memories of their childhood are often on my mind. The experience of motherhood has a lasting impact on women. Someone once said that having children is like watching your heart walk around outside your body. You will be forever changed once you become a parent.
The Struggle To Stop Controlling Your Adult Children Is Fierce
For many women, they have not emotionally accepted that their child is an independent adult. Stuck in memories, this mom has ignored the reality that she needs to update her emotional dashboard. She must train her brain to see and accept that her kids are grown adults.
Research has shown that when families get together for events or holidays, we often revert to our childhood roles. As much as we might dislike reverting to old behaviors, families often unconsciously pressure each other to perform the role assigned in childhood.
Family Behavior Cycles Can Reinforce A Controlling Mom
Parents will over function, which often looks like exerting control and expecting obedience from adult children. Adult siblings will bicker, engaging in pointless old arguments and family sarcasm will increase. The cycles of dysfunction will repeat in an endless loop. Childhood roles of the “smart one” or the “golden child” or the black sheep” will re-surface, keeping everyone feeling emotionally safe and informing us how to behave within our family.
Hold Up, You Might Be Part Of The Problem
This cycle of dysfunctional control can be better understood by becoming curious about the role you play in the family identity. As an adult child, take some time to analyze your behavior when you are around family.
Do you revert to a childhood role? Are you quick to become the “baby of the family’ when you are attending family events? Is it possible that you are contributing to the controlling parental dynamic by behaving in a way that reinforces your childhood role assigned by the family?
What Part Are You Playing In The Control Cycle?
When we unconsciously behave in a childhood manner, we are inviting the controlling behavior of our parents. Triggered by her emotional memory, many moms will attempt to control her family during the holidays (or other gatherings) It is not uncommon for a mother to justify invading her adult child’s privacy during their stay in her home.
Take some time to identify how you are contributing to the control dynamic that is taking place between you and your mom. Are you triggering her sense of protection and provision by behaving like a much younger version of yourself? It is critical that you show up as your adult self to family functions. Choosing to behave as an independent adult reinforces the truth about your own capacity for self -relance and independence.
Talking to Your Mom About Controlling Behavior
While it may not be easy, it’s important to have an honest conversation with your mom about her controlling behavior. Explain to her that you feel like she is overstepping boundaries and making decisions for you without taking your opinion into account. Try to talk calmly and respectfully so she is more likely to listen and understand your perspective.
Setting Boundaries Is The Only Way To Stop The Controlling Mom Cycle
Breaking free from a controlling mom can be difficult for both of you. She will feel rejected and left out of your life and you will feel continual pressure to break your boundaries to please her. Redefining a controlling relationship can take a tremendous amount of energy and self-discipline, but it will be worth every bit of discomfort you experienced.
Boundaries are decisions you make to help you define your private life and honor your personal choices. This includes any personal information that is not for public/family discussion. When you create boundaries, you are helping people understand how to treat you.
Boundaries Will Help People Treat You With Respect
If they accept and honor your boundaries, then they will have access to you at the level you have consciously determined. If they dishonor and disregard your boundaries, then you might choose to minimize interactions with people that ignore your requests for privacy.
Boundaries With A Controlling Mom Might Sound Like This:
- I will no longer be sharing any financial information with you. Please don’t ask me for details or expect me to give you information regarding my income or my spending.
- Please stop asking me if I am going to stop wearing glasses (or color my hair, or lose weight, or get a manicure, etc). I will make my own decisions about my body; I do not want your opinion.
- My romantic life is off limits from now on. I will not be listening to your opinion or concerns about my chosen partner.
- Mom, we are raising our children with intention and our best effort. Please refrain from criticizing or critiquing our parenting decisions. I will not be having further conversations with you about our parenting style.
Boundaries with controlling parents can be very difficult to maintain. Remember, you are breaking old habits and replacing new relationship behaviors. It will be a struggle. Controlling moms will feel offended and most likely will protest the change in relationship. Remind yourself that you have the right to decide how much access any person ( including family!) has to your life and your decisions.
We all want to have loving and supportive relationships with our parents. But sometimes, we get caught in a cycle of dysfunctional behavior due to unhealthy ideas about family expectations. Despite their painful actions, many controlling moms are stuck in a pattern of learned dysfunction, and might not be fully aware of their hurtful behavior.
Remember: You Can Limit Time And Access With Your Controlling Mom
As an adult child, you have the right to privacy. You are allowed to determine what is off limits for family opinion and discussion. Take some time and identify the most painful topics that repeat in your relationship with your mom. Make a courageous and firm decision to create boundaries around your private life. Seek out friends and resources to help support your boundaries with your controlling mom.
Melane Ann is a writer, blogger, and life coach. In 2020, she turned her experience in midlife divorce and creating a new life for herself into midlifeismagical. With a master's in Marriage and Family Therapy, Melane focuses on helping women over 50 navigate their relationships and commit to healthy aging. She and her new husband share 7 children between them. Melane jokes that she has a black belt in blended families! In addition to her writing, Melane works virtually with her coaching clients from her home office.