How Do Adults Deal With Overbearing Parents?

Reviewed on 7/20/2021

An overbearing parent is someone who wants control over their kid's life and choices. Adults can deal with overbearing parents by telling them you can't continue with family traditions or rituals, responding with gratitude, declaring off-limits topics, not answering calls and texts and establishing boundaries.
An overbearing parent is someone who wants control over their kid’s life and choices. Adults can deal with overbearing parents by telling them you can't continue with family traditions or rituals, responding with gratitude, declaring off-limits topics, not answering calls and texts and establishing boundaries.

An overbearing parent is someone who wants control over their kid’s life and choices. Adult children of overbearing parents often endure this treatment for decades because they either feel powerless to stop it or feel that the emotional cost of doing so would be too high. Those who do stand up to an overbearing parent often do so by lashing out in anger and saying something hurtful that causes or deepens a rift in the relationship. Below are a few common ways to deal with overbearing parents.

Inform your parent that you cannot continue with family traditions or rituals that no longer fit your schedule:

  • To an overbearing parent, an adult child is behaving irresponsibly each time they fail to maintain these traditions. However, these frequent obligations can become a burden as your life changes, especially if you have a hectic career, live far away and/or have kids of your own.
  • Acknowledge the tradition, but clearly state that your participation in it must change.
  • Once there is no longer an expectation, you may opt to participate in the activity with the parent when it makes sense for you with much less stress and no guilt.
  • If there is more than one tradition you wish to break, spread this out over several months or longer. Ending numerous traditions all at once might make your parent  fear that you are planning to break off all contact.

Respond with gratitude:

  • When your parent raises an off-limit topic, respond with gratitude.
  • Rather than voicing your frustration, see this as a sign of progress and use positive reinforcement. That’s more likely to encourage the truly desired behavior (not raising it at all) in the future.

Declare specific topics as off-limits and then express love:

  • Overbearing parents often insert themselves into areas of their adult children’s lives where their input is not welcome, such as advice about romantic partners, careers, cooking or homemaking skills, weight, spending decisions, wardrobe and grooming choices, child-rearing decisions and fertility problems.
  • The next time the parent raises one of these topics, politely explain that you do not enjoy discussing the topic. However, before your parent can react to this, express your love for them and/or your appreciation for their willingness to provide advice.
  • Chances are that you’ll have to repeat your unwillingness to discuss a topic several times before your parent catches on that you’re serious and that you’re not backing down. Try not to express your frustration when you must repeat this request.

Stop answering every call or text:

  • If you have a parent who contacts you repeatedly over the course of a day and generally has nothing important to say, explain that you won’t be repeatedly interrupting your other activities to answer these calls or texts right away and offer a few good times when the two of you generally can talk.
  • Not leaping to attention each time an intrusive parent tries to make contact is a crucial first step in rebalancing the relationship. This might feel uncomfortable for you at first, but within a few days or weeks, it will start to feel (and will in fact be) empowering.
  • Of course, if there is some reason to believe that a parent’s message could be an emergency or a request for essential information, it’s best to respond as quickly as possible.

Establish boundaries:

  • Overbearing parents love to push until they get their way. They chip away at a person’s vulnerabilities until that person eventually gives in. To keep that from happening, establish a firm boundary up front and hold to it.
  • Make sure that you have come to terms with those boundaries within yourself. Be confident in this and understand why you have to do this. This will help you to firmly communicate and hold the boundary when potential attempts at overbearing increase.

In addition, don't forget that your parent may need you to be a stimulus for change in their life. You may be one of the few people in their circle who is aware of their hurtful behavior or attitude. Therefore, just as their job was to correct you in the past, your job (without the parental authority role) may be to correct them in the present.

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References
WebMD: "How to Deal With a Controlling Mother." https://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/features/dealing-controlling-mother

Next Avenue: "How to Deal with a Critical and Overbearing Parent." https://www.nextavenue.org/deal-critical-overbearing-parent/

University of Virginia: "Study: Overbearing Parents Lead to Long-Term Stuggles with Relationships, Education." https://news.virginia.edu/content/study-overbearing-parents-lead-long-term-struggles-relationships-education

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