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WebMD Chat Transcript




If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past

With Dan Neuharth, PhD


Monday, July 24, 2000 12:00 PM EDT

WebMD:  The opinions expressed herein are those of the guest's alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Hello and welcome to the Parenting Today Program. Today's guest is Dan Neuharth, PhD, author of If You Had Controlling Parents, How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World

Welcome to the program, Dr. Neuharth. It's a pleasure having you on WebMD Live. Before we begin taking questions about your book, can you tell everyone a little bit about your background and area of expertise?

Dr. Neuharth: I'm a family therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I specialize in working with adults who were raised in families with unhealthy control. 

Moderator: You've been practicing therapy for more than 10 years. Can you tell us why you decided to write a book about controlling parents?

Dr. Neuharth: Two reasons. First, I see a great number of adults who come into therapy with compelling current life problems, who grew up with unhealthy control, and who do not necessarily make the connection between how they were raised and their problems as an adult. Second, I myself was raised in a controlling family. When I talk about unhealthy control, I mean a micromanaging of children's lives: how they eat, when they eat, who they associate with, what they wear. This can have long-standing and costly results in adult life. 

Moderator: What is the line between healthy and unhealthy control from parents?

Dr. Neuharth: First of all, you have to exert control over children as a parent. You have to tell them, "The stove is hot, don't touch," and "Don't play in traffic." The litmus test I suggest for parents to tell when they have crossed the line is to ask themselves this: Are the rules and roles in your family designed for optimal growth of your child as well as all family members . . . or are your family's rules and roles designed primarily to protect you, the parent, from some personal fears or serve your personal needs, yet are not in the best interests of your children?

Moderator: What advice do you give to adults whose parents still try to control them?

Dr. Neuharth: I know a number of adults who say their parents still treat them like they were eight years old. The parents intrude into their finances, personal lives, careers. This may be well-meaning on the parents' part but it can be an unwelcome intrusion. It is in your best interests, as well as your parent's best interests, to have an adult-to-adult relationship. As an adult you can do all the things you could not do as a child. You can set healthier boundaries with your parents. You can tell them something like, "I'm sorry, that is a private matter. I'm sure mom (or dad) that you have private matters, and this is one of mine." One thing that helps a great deal is to simply turn a potentially intrusive conversation around so that if focuses back on your parents. If you have a parent who is hovering, nervous about the way you are budgeting your finances, you might ask, "Mom and dad, when you were my age what were your finances like?" That may be what they really want to talk about anyway.

jamesea_msn: I have a friend who is single and 40. Her mother tries to control her life by saying things like, "You should do this," or "You should be married now." My friend always feels the need to defend herself.

Dr. Neuharth: A key thing to remember about unhealthy control and intrusive questions is that they are not about you! We all sometimes overcontrol and, if you think about it, more than likely when you push too hard it is because you are acting based on fear. Your friend might seek ways to talk with her mother about what her mother is afraid of. Is her mother perhaps bored with her own life and thus focusing on her daughter? Is she embarrassed that her daughter is the only one of her friends' adult children who is unmarried? Is her mother anxious that she may not have had a healthy marriage herself and thus worried that her marriage is somehow influencing her daughter to remain unmarried? When we can get to the root of fears, relationships can be more honest. Of course, this isn't always possible. Many controlling parents will say, "I'm not afraid of anything. I'm concerned about you."

Moderator: If the adult child finds their parents' controlling behavior stressful but wants to keep in contact with their parents, what can he or she do?

Dr. Neuharth: First, pick and choose your battles. If it is terribly important to your parents for you to call them once a week, you might just want to do so. But if it is terribly important to you to keep your work problems, personal relationships, or health matters to yourself, make your stand on that. Second, remember that inherent in your parents' controlling behavior are fears they have about themselves and about you, and hopes they have about themselves and about you. Things may go more smoothly if you can find a way to broach the subject of your parent's fears and hopes rather than just focusing on behavior.

Moderator: How does someone know whether they had controlling parents?

Dr. Neuharth: Controlling parents micromanage their children's lives. I interviewed a number of people for my book and one woman I interviewed recalled that when she was five, her mother put a sign on her daughter's back whenever the girl was out in public. The sign read: "Do not feed me." You can imagine the horror that young girl felt. It was her mother's agenda. The girl was of normal weight but her mother was concerned that she not become overweight. That is an extreme example. One man I interviewed had to say, "Father, may I speak?" or "Mother, may I speak?" before every sentence, or his parents would ignore him. Another woman I interviewed told me how she would get the love letters she sent to her father back with the spelling and grammar corrected. Parents send double messages sometimes, such as the father who says to his son, "Be a man -- but don't ever challenge my authority." Or the mother who sends signals to her daughter that the daughter should be smart, poised, and attractive but then treats her in ways that undermine her daughter's confidence.

Moderator: You talk about making peace with your past and taking your own place in the world. How do you make peace and why is this so important?

Dr. Neuharth: There are many ways to make peace with your past. Each person has to find out what works for her or him. Some of us, for example, may need to speak or write to their parents about a difficult childhood, perhaps even to confront their parents. For some, you have to say your piece to make your peace. Others, however, find that they can reach a sense of peace all on their own through spiritual practices, therapy, friendships, loving relationships, or self-help books and groups.

hanna7_webmd: What do you think is the most important step to take to avoid repeating your parent's mistakes with your own children?

Dr. Neuharth: Hanna7, the good news is that, as a parent, you are in no way destined to do to your children the unhealthy things they did to you. We know that from research with parents who were abused with children. Some parents who were abused as children become abusive themselves, but most do not. The most important thing, I think, is awareness. Recognize that: 1) Parenting is a very, very tough job. It's on the job training; 2) No single thing you do as a parent (perhaps with the exception of abuse or a traumatic event) will "ruin" your child. Rather, it is the day in, day out little things of parenting that influence your children. There are many great parenting books out there. You can find helpful resources on this question on my website at http://www.controllingparents.com/links.htm.

Moderator: What do adult children of controlling parents have in common?

Dr. Neuharth: Some tendencies include:
1) Your relationships with others may be control battles. That is, you feel dominated by others, or you try to dominate others
You find it hard to trust others, even when you want to, or you find that you trust too easily and get hurt.
3) You may notice if you grew up controlled is that your life is lacking the kind of balance you might like. You may feel like a perfectionist, driven, rarely satisfied. You may suffer excessive guilt, anxiety, or depression.
4) Probably the biggest tendency is that you may be self-critical. After a lifetime of being second-guessed and criticized by your parents you may give everyone else the benefit of the doubt but question yourself, or you may blame yourself for things that are not your fault.

Moderator: In your book, you describe one type of unhealthy parental control as "cultlike" parenting. This word seems strong. Can you explain?

Dr. Neuharth: It is a strong word. Cultlike families share similarities with destructive cults. For example, there is isolation from outsiders; a sort of we-vs.-they attitude. There are rigid, dogmatic rules and practices. People who grew up in military families can tell stories of early morning drills, white glove tests of the children's room for cleanliness, or of having to sit bolt upright at the table. And, in Cultlike families questioning the parents is absolutely forbidden, just as in in as in most destructive cults, it is forbidden to challenge the leader or guru.

catherine333_msn: My concern is for my brother. He has developed a serious eating problem, which I suspect is a result of our upbringing. Though it was not abusive, he was constantly belittled by our father. What type of help can you suggest. He is now 30 years old, six feet and almost 600 pounds.

Dr. Neuharth: Catherine, I am sorry to hear about your brother. While there may not have been physical abuse, being constantly belittled is abusive emotionally and psychologically. Weight issues and obesity are complicated subjects, and, of course, your brother has no doubt seen a physician to rule out any physiological causes for his weight problem. But there can also be psychological factors in weight gain such as your brother's. He may find that having a larger body gives him a feeling of protection, in a sense, after having been verbally attacked so long. He may have developed a poor self-image, almost a need to punish himself, in response to the way your parents punished him. In addition to medical care, your brother might find visiting a licensed psychotherapist helpful.

Moderator: You write about how you grew up with a very controlling father. Did you implement your own advice? And if so, how did it work?

Dr. Neuharth: My father and I have made our peace now, as adults, but it was not always easy. He was a very successful executive who ran our family like a company. We had to set appointments to talk to him. He would communicate the latest family rules to my sister and I with memos. I grew up thinking that there must be something wrong with me that I needed so much control. My father seemed so sure about everything, after all, so I thought that I must have been the one who was mistaken. Like many controlled children, I grew up as a second-guesser and self-blamer. My father and I went through a period of some years when we had little contact. I found that I had to, in essence, cut loose emotionally so that I could begin to feel like an independent adult in my own right. Many people who grew up controlled find that a period of reduced or even no contact with a controlling parent is a helpful thing. Many others, however, find that they can make the changes they need to make internally even while remaining in contact with parents.

Moderator: What are some signs that you may be still affected by unhealthy childhood control?

Dr. Neuharth: You may be intimidated or easily angered around controlling people. You may find that you lose yourself in relationships by either putting others' needs first or by trying to keep others at arm's length. You may find it hard to relax, hard to let yourself enjoy your successes. You may have harsh inner critics, the leftover voices of your parents, who criticize your every move.

Moderator: What are some signs that your parents still may be controlling you?

Dr. Neuharth: You may feel disloyal when you act or feel differently than your parents would like. You might find yourself annoyed or impatient with your parents quite often, and not know why. You might find that you are afraid to be yourself or express your true feelings around your parents. You might find that you talk to your parents more out of obligation than choice. You might find that you get tense when thinking about contact with your parents. If one or more of these is the case, you may find it helpful to evaluate your relationship with your parents just as you would any of your adult relationships. Ask yourself whether, on balance, this is a relationship of mutual respect, in which both people feel that their opinions and feelings are respected, in which there is give and take, in which there is learning and growth and humor. Most importantly, is this a relationship in which dissent and disagreement are allowed? If these are lacking, you have to ask yourself either: a) How can this relationship be improved? and/or b) Do you really want to devote this much time to a one-sided, painful relationship?

Moderator: What are some signs that adult children of controlling parents may be overcontrolling their children?

Dr. Neuharth: Some indicators include criticizing your children more than praising them; forbidding questions or dissent; violating their privacy; overriding or discounting their feelings or decisions. Perhaps most troubling is if you see your children's desires for independence and autonomy as a personal rejection of you, rather than as just part of growth.

Moderator: We are almost out of time. Before we say good bye do you have any closing comments?

Dr. Neuharth: Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this. I appreciate the time and questions. You might also want to visit http://www.controllingparents.com/ for more links, resources, and information.

Moderator: Unfortunately, we are out of time. Thank you very much, Dr. Neuharth, for joining us this morning. It's been a pleasure having you on the program. You were wonderful and very informative. Thanks again.

Dr. Neuharth: Thank you.

WebMD: The opinions expressed herein are those of the guest's alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Copyright 1996-2000 WebMD, Inc. - All rights reserved.

The preceding transcript of a July 24 2004 WebMD Chat has been edited for grammar, spelling, and clarity.

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If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Take Your Place in the World
Published by HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright Dan Neuharth, Ph.D.  All rights reserved.