Plenty of us have dealt with a parent "bossing" us around at some point, but all "bossing" is not created equal. There's a difference between a parent who is on the stricter side and one who is flat-out controlling. According to Esther Boykin, MFT, a marriage and family therapist, controlling parents are those who, simply, "don’t leave space for their children to have their own emotional experience and develop a sense of autonomy."
Naturally, this approach to parenting can leave a lasting mark on someone's relationship with their parents, even into adulthood. But, Boykin adds, this behavior doesn't have to define the relationship if you know how to address it.
On one hand, growing up with a difficult parent can mean lacking the confidence to advocate for yourself and your own feelings. On the other, Boykin adds, your relationship could take a more antagonistic bent, in which frequent conflicts arise over your agency, especially as you reach your teen years.
It's during this period, when you're starting to mature and form a clear, individual worldview, that you may be able to discern the true nature of your parents' behavior. "As [kids] move into adolescence, you really start to see the difference between parents who are extremely controlling and ones who are trying to find their way," Boykin explains. If you had limits on what you could do as a teen, you likely had protective parents who were concerned about the choices you were making — but if your parents told you explicitly not to, say, dress a certain way, participate in certain activities, or hang out with certain people, they were exhibiting controlling behavior. Boykin says it can be difficult to make this distinction in the moment, since controlling parents can affect how young people view their own autonomy, but you may realize it when looking back on your adolescence — and it's perfectly acceptable to raise this issue with your parents now, as an adult.
Once you reach adulthood, however, the ways in which your parents try to exert control over you will likely change, though they may be as pervasive as they were when you were younger. Boykin says they may offer to help pay for your education, your car, or even your home, but these gifts often come with strings attached. They may be happy to support you in purchasing a home, as long as it's near where they live. They may be willing to fund your graduate school tuition, as long as they approve of the degree you're pursuing.
"Otherwise, [the control] will show up as guilt," Boykin says. If your parents take this route, their controlling behavior will likely take the form of asking why you don't call as often as they'd like or why you aren't taking their (usually unsolicited) advice around your career and love life. "Our parents know all of those soft spots," Boykin says. "If they want to exert control, they’re really good at doing it in ways that can be fairly indirect."
As overbearing and, in some cases, inescapable as your parents' controlling behavior may be, Boykin says there's still hope for forging a healthy relationship with them. First, she recommends taking a moment to consider the impact that your parents' attempts at control actually has on your day-to-day life. If you don't live near them or only have to deal with an occasional comment from them, you may be able to tackle the issue head on. "It can be as simple as addressing specific incidents on a case-by-case basis," Boykin says, explaining that saying something like, "It’s not okay for you to make those decisions for me," can be enough to get your point across.
Or, if you reflect on your relationship with your parents and find that their need for control actually affects your life on a greater scale (maybe it's influencing your career, relationships, or daily decisions), you may need to prepare more before bringing it up with them. In this case, Boykin says it's important to focus your conversation on how their actions make you feel — and how you would like to feel instead. "Be very concrete about the behaviors that you will no longer accept," she says, adding that you should avoid asking them why they act the way that they do — most of time, controlling parents are acting out of misguided but good intentions and calling that out may cause them to feel hurt and, consequently, shut down. "With a parent who's controlling, you need concrete directions if you want to see changes in their behavior and in how you guys relate to each other."
Of course, speaking with a therapist before raising any issues with your parents will help you make a plan for the conversation and determine what you really want out of your relationship with them. Plus, Boykin adds, you can even have a therapist present when you are ready to speak with your parents directly, if you believe that their support and mediation would be helpful.
That said, if your parents make it clear that they aren't interested in hearing you, let alone adjusting the way they speak to you, you may be dealing with more than simply controlling behavior. "Take a very honest and hard look at the relationship you have with your parents," Boykin says. If they aren't willing to meet you in the middle and work on creating a healthy relationship, you may have to stick to simply setting clear and firm boundaries with them — which, again, a therapist can absolutely help you do.