Thought you were done working out your mommy and daddy issues? Think again, because new evidence suggests that children of controlling parents are less happy as adults, meaning those problems never really go away.
Researchers in psychology from the University College of London (UCL) have just released results of a longitudinal study examining the relationship between childhood environments and adult mental health. Published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, the study made use of data kept by the Medical Research Council and the National Survey of Health and Development on more than 5,000 British people (though some participants inevitably drop out of such studies, there were around 2,000 participants remaining at age 60-64). Participants took surveys designed to measure parental bonding, psychological control, and behavioral control.
Even after controlling for factors like socioeconomic class and the participants' personalities, the UCL researchers found that people whose parents had been warm and "responsive" to their needs displayed significantly higher levels of psychological well-being as adults. On the other hand, people who had psychologically controlling parents had markedly lower psychological well-being as adults. In fact, the difference was large enough to be comparable to the lowered well-being typically experienced by adults who have experienced the death of a close friend or family member.
It's too late for you to undo whatever parenting was done to you, but knowing is at least part of the battle. You may be surprised to find that you're still affected by your parents' parenting in your late 20s or 30s, as you begin to finally feel like a "real adult," but if this research is correct then you can expect your childhood to continue affecting you basically until you die. Though there's no real substitute for having had loving, non-controlling parents, probably the best thing you can do now is to form healthy attachments in other ways. This is, of course, easier said than done. But if your parents sucked and you're having trouble with all your co-workers, friends, and romantic partners, you need to consider that part of the problem might be you.
Kids of controlling parents also may struggle with independence issues. Their childhoods set them up for feeling excessively dependent on their parents, and for some people (like those in the study) this struggle to break away emotionally from the parents never totally ends. But, anecdotally, it can go either way — some kids who are made to feel overly dependent on their parents turn out to become the ultra-independent rebels. Since neither of these extremes is healthy, look out for any tendencies you have to downplay your capabilities as an adult, as well as any tendencies to reject reasonably depending even a little on your friends and partner.
If you ever have your own kids, you should avoid those nefarious psychological control tactics and opt for a warm parenting style instead. As everyone sort of knew, and real science has now begun to show, controlling your kids through complicated mind-game tactics is winning the battle but losing the war. Psychological control techniques (like guilting, shaming, and using emotional manipulation) may achieve temporary compliance from your kids, but it comes at the risk of screwing them over in the long run and making them less capable adults, which clearly isn't worth it.
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