15 things parents say to subtly control you, even when you’re an adult

If you’re lucky, you have a healthy relationship with your parents. A good situation with your mom and dad is one of mutual respect and support. 

If you’re not as lucky, your relationship with your parents is strained, challenged, or toxic. 

One unhealthy type of family relationship is one where your parents feel the need to control you even if you’re an adult who’s capable of making your own choices.

So how do you know either of your parents or both are trying to control you? The signs can be subtle. Here’s how to tell…

1) Constantly tell you to be grateful

Yes, kids should be grateful for the life that parents gave them. However, they don’t need to be reminded that day in and day out.

Oftentimes, parents will use this language to dismiss the kids’ feelings. It’s like they’re saying, “it doesn’t matter how you feel because I gave you this life.”

The truth is, your feelings matter even though you’re grateful.

2) Tell you that they always know what’s best for you

If your parents tell you that they know what’s best for you, that’s innocent enough. Since they’ve been on this earth longer than you, they can share their wisdom.

But if they constantly give you this message, they’re not giving you much autonomy, are they?

If you’re an adult, you should be able to live your life the way you want to live it. Telling you what to do because they “know best” devalues your own desires.

3) Demand that you always listen to them

Even if they did know what’s best for you, that doesn’t mean you have to listen to your parents at all times.

As you grow and learn, you bring your own experiences and perspective into your life. You owe it to yourself to make your own decisions.

And if you make mistakes, that’s okay. They’re your mistakes to make… 

4) Point out every time you make a mistake

In your life, you’re bound to make mistakes. What’s a life without them? They’ll help you grow.

But should your loving parent point out and criticize every time you make one? No.

They should support you and help you when you falter. 

5) Compare you to other people

Parents might use this tactic because they think it’ll help motivate you to achieve your goals. I don’t particularly appreciate it, and you shouldn’t either.

Instead of playing these mind games, parents should encourage you and support you. Not make you compete with other people. 

This is your journey and your journey alone. Not your parents, and certainly not the people they’re comparing you to.

6) Tell you that you’re making them look bad

Newsflash: you are your own person. Your decisions and how you live your life is yours to won. 

If a parent is telling you that you made them look bad, you have to wonder if they’re trying to subtly control you.

Likely, your parent just wants you to project perfection to other people, but that’s not reality, nor is it healthy. You do you, boo! 

7) Never give praise and kudos when it’s due

When you do reach your goals and showcase your potential, if your parents are not showing awareness, they might be trying to control you.

Whatever their motive might be, they may be withholding phrase as a way to make you try even harder next time. Or worse, your parents might be competing with you and don’t want you to succeed. 

Your parents should want to celebrate your accomplishments. They should be proud of you for your hard work and achievements.

8) Remind you that they sacrificed everything for you

Let’s be real. True, parents sacrifice a great deal for their kids. Money, a home, support, their time—your mom and dad gave you plenty.

However, does that mean you have to be indebted to them forever? Do you have to give them everything right back? They shouldn’t burden you with that.

9) Say that you’re overreacting when you’re not

This is lowkey gaslighting. If you’re not familiar with the term, to “gaslight” someone means to give them a false sense of reality.

If your parents are insinuating that you’re overreacting to a situation when you know in your heart you’re not, they’re devaluing your emotions. 

Your feelings are valid. Your reaction is warranted. Don’t let your gaslighting parent make you think otherwise. 

10) Make you think you’re being too sensitive

When it comes to a parent-child relationship, the message that you’re “too sensitive” can be really damaging. 

If your parents are telling you you’re being “too sensitive,” they’re essentially saying you’re not allowed to feel the way you feel.

It’s incredibly unhealthy to sweep your feelings under the rug. You have the right to experience your emotions. If you are prevented from letting your feelings out, it’ll eat you up inside. 

11) Say you won’t understand where they’re coming from

When a parent automatically discounts your ability to understand their perspective on situations, they merely don’t want to be bothered to “get into it” with you.

They don’t want to spend the time and energy to include you. They’d rather not tell you because they don’t value your opinion, assume you won’t have one, or don’t care.

It’s a subtle way to control you because knowledge is power, and they don’t want to give it to you.

12) Make you feel like their love is conditional 

If a parent is exhibiting behaviors where they won’t just give you their love freely, I’m so sorry. That is an awful situation to be in.

Your parent’s love should be unconditional. That means, they’ll love you no matter what you do. They might not always agree with your choices, but they care about you.

Conditional love is when someone acts like you owe them something in exchange for their support and heart. 

13) Tell you that you owe them

If your parents are acting like you need to give in order to receive, it’s self-serving and borderline toxic.

The only thing you owe your parents is your respect (assuming it’s reciprocated, that is). They gave you life, sure, but that doesn’t mean you owe them anything. 

It was their choice to have you. You didn’t ask to be born. You are their responsibility until you’re grown. After that, the deal is complete. 

14) Claim that you need them and that you can’t do anything without them

You are a capable person. Don’t ever forget that.

As an adult, while you might want your parents’ love and support, you don’t need them. 

It’s manipulative to undermine your self-esteem and make you feel like you’re incompetent. 

15) Use extreme language to generalize behaviors and actions

For instance, if your parents constantly say, “You always do this and that” and “You never do this and that,” you should question the message behind the words.

Are you an extreme individual? If not, this is a control mechanism that’s quite subtle. Your parents are generalizing and putting you in a box

The intent might be to get you to take action or change, but your parents should just tell you what they want respectfully. 

What to do if you have parents who are controlling you

If you answered yes to several of the points on the list above, you probably have parents who are either subtly or obviously controlling you.

If you’re an adult and can take care of yourself in a proper, healthy fashion, you don’t require or deserve this control.

Here are the steps to take to get to a better place with your family:

  • Step 1: Recognize the signs, but also try to understand where they’re coming from. Having empathy can help you when you finally have a discussion with them about their actions.
  • Step 2: Seek out support. Do you have trusted people around you who aren’t your parents that can help you navigate? 
  • Step 3: Communicate assertively and effectively. Yes, you will have to talk to your parents about what’s happening. Be calm, honest, and respectful during the conversation.
  • Step 4: Establish healthy and clear boundaries. Tell your parents what they are and stick to it. For starters, be okay saying no. 
  • Step 5: Continue to work on you. Maintain your independence. Seek the professional help of a therapist or counselor. Join a support group of people who have experienced the same hurdles with their families. 

What a healthy relationship looks like with your parents

If you’ve been in a toxic control spiral with your parents, you may not know what a healthy situation even looks like. 

A good relationship with parents should embody the following:

  • Honest and respectful communication from all parties
  • The ability to express your thoughts, feelings, and concerns without fear or judgment
  • The ability to make your own decisions and have autonomy as you grow older
  • Encouragement rather than obligation
  • Respecting of boundaries
  • Understanding of differences
  • Emotional support
  • Acceptance of respectful and thoughtful advice
  • Effort to spend nice, quality time together
  • Expressing appreciation and gratitude without force
  • Valuing each other’s strengths
  • Never making the children feel like they’re a burden 
Ysolt Usigan Schmidt

Ysolt Usigan Schmidt

Ysolt Usigan is a lifestyle writer and editor with 15+ years of experience working in digital media. She has created share-worthy content for publishers WomansDay.com, Shape, WhatToExpect, CafeMom, TODAY, CBSNews, HuffingtonPost, TheBump, Health Magazine, and AskMen. A working mom of two, her editorial expertise in relationships, spirituality, mental wellness, shopping, and home are rooted in her everyday life.

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