Controlling parenting is counterproductive, undermining children’s self-regulation and their capacities for responsibility.
Parents can often feel confused when they hear that it’s good for children to have parents who are in control of their households, but that controlling parenting is bad for them.
Mom and dad may feel caught between these two pieces of advice, suggesting that control can be good but also bad for children. How is a parent to know what’s right and when?
That’s why our research has identified a more straightforward way to think about raising children. It distinguishes between children having ‘structure’ (healthy) as opposed to children being pushed through controlling parenting (unhealthy).
Difference between controlling parenting and parenting which provides ‘structure’
Structure can involve rules, guidelines and limits so that children know what’s expected of them and the consequences of their actions. That helps them learn successfully and avoid getting into trouble. But structure does not have to be imposed in a controlling manner.
Structure can be developed in ways that also support children’s autonomy. Parents can get together with their children to figure out rules and consequences. There can be back and forth. Dissension can be heard and discussed.
Parents can listen to critical feedback and empathise with children’s dislike of tasks, be it doing chores or homework. So structure can support autonomy and children’s agency. But, ultimately, rules and guidance are established, so this approach is not simply permissive. Supporting children’s autonomy is actually very active and does not involve a loss of parental authority or agency.
Controlling parenting was associated with children experiencing increased anxiety and depression, particularly in more dangerous neighbourhoods where children need to experience personal competence and agency.
This approach contrasts with controlling parenting, where parents push and pressure children into actions over which they may have little say, and parents dictate without allowing genuine input from children. Such parenting can sometimes involve harsh discipline, including corporal punishment.
How controlling parenting can harm children
Controlling parenting can undermine children’s self-regulation and their capacity for responsibility. Instead of learning how to manage their own behavior, children may become reactive, responding negatively to being controlled. This may lead them to do the opposite of what is demanded, not from personal choice, but as a reaction against too much pressure.
We tested these two aspects of parenting, structured and controlling, in a study of 215 children and their families in several parts of Worcester, Massachusetts. We looked at whether parents were controlling and pressuring or whether they supported autonomy. We also tested whether they provided structure or whether rules and guidelines were lacking.
We were particularly interested in how parenting of children worked out in more dangerous neighbourhoods. Some experts argue that controlling parenting is the right thing to do in such areas because children are at risk and need their parents to protect them—and that autonomy-supportive parenting, which takes children’s opinions into account and allows them to offer input, is more appropriate in safer neighbourhoods.
Supporting autonomy is vital in dangerous neighbourhoods
Our study found that in all the neighbourhoods, irrespective of their intrinsic dangers, overbearing or controlling parenting increased anxiety and depression in children. Indeed, these symptoms were particularly exacerbated in more dangerous neighbourhoods.
This is probably because children in dangerous neighbourhoods particularly need a sense of competence and agency and to be able to solve problems and manage those difficulties, so they need parenting that supports their autonomy.
Controlling parents can undermine feelings of autonomy and competence. Yet, it is precisely the danger of some neighbourhoods that can lead parents to use more pressure and be less collaborative because they worry about the risks their children face.
Most parents believe, in principle, in children’s autonomy, but sometimes worries and internal pressures cause them to push their children.
Our study also found that when parents provided more structure, children were less likely to show depression and anxiety and less like to act out problems, no matter whether the neighbourhood was considered dangerous or safe.
Controlling parenting is driven by diverse sources of stress
Research highlights three kinds of stress that can lead parents to adopt more pressuring and controlling approaches. First, stressful situations—from work, poverty or relationships—can narrow parents’ focus, making them less empathetic. We have shown that negative life events such as divorce, having to move, and financial difficulties are all associated with controlling parenting.
Second, parents can feel pressure from within—they may feel that they must make their children competitive for what seems like a “dog-eat-dog” world, or a parent’s own self-esteem may rely on their children doing well.
We have conducted studies that identified parents whose sense of worth was particularly tied to their children’s performance. We then tested how they interacted with their children and found that they were more likely to be controlling.
A third source of pressure to be controlling can come from children themselves. It’s much easier to encourage input and autonomy in children who are easier to deal with and more cooperative than with children who are difficult and challenging. Studies have established that the parents of difficult children are more likely be controlling.
Help parents to understand what motivates children
How can we encourage parents to shift from harmful, controlling parenting to parenting that supports autonomy? This is a crucial question, particularly for parents who are raising children in stressful situations or neighbourhoods full of risks for their children.
To encourage this shift from controlling parenting, it’s helpful to recognise that many parents believe, in principle, in the value of children’s autonomy. They want their children to do what interests them and to be happy. But in stressful situations, they often find themselves pushing and pressuring the children. This is similar to attitudes about corporal punishment: many parents who spank their children don’t actually agree with such punishment, later regret their actions, and are open to learning about alternatives.
Parents need to know how to provide guidance, expectations, and standards, but in ways that do not undermine children’s autonomy and personal responsibility.
We have designed and tested an intervention that helps parents shift from a controlling approach to one that supports their children’s autonomy. We don’t just teach strategies. We also explain motivational theory so parents understand how increasing children’s autonomy will fuel their energy for what they do.
This helps parents to see why controlling parenting can backfire. Understanding the theory gives parents something to fall back on when times are difficult and they are tempted to pressure and push children in a dictatorial fashion. This intervention has shown good results, with controlling parents changing their behaviors and becoming more autonomy-supporting.
We have to help parents who rely on controlling methods out of the binds in which they can find themselves. They need to know how they can provide guidance, expectations, and standards, but in ways that do not undermine children’s sense of autonomy and personal responsibility.
Avoid rewarding activities that children already love
We encourage parents to use this knowledge in two ways. For activities that children love to do, support and encourage them without getting in front of them. So if they love soccer, support it without being pushy. Intrinsically motivated activities can easily start to feel extrinsically motivated when parents push and pressure. That can be counterproductive, putting children off doing what they previously loved.
However, some important activities are not naturally attractive or interesting to children. It’s vital to set some rules, expectations, and guidelines for these activities but also to provide well-discussed reasons so that children can internalise them.
A parent might say: “Keeping a clean room is important because then you can find your things and you won’t attract bugs that can make you sick.” This approach allows a parent to develop rules and expectations in concert with a child, empathising with the fact that they might not want to do what’s asked of them. Parents can give choices to help avoid children feeling controlled: “Would you rather clean your room on Saturday morning or after school?”
Parents need to be careful to differentiate between activities that children love to do and those that they don’t enjoy – and alter their behaviour accordingly. If parents reward children for things they already love to do, then, sometimes, children won’t want to do them anymore.