What to Say to A Controlling or Critical Parent
Photo by Daniel Ribeiro Cortat Arastoro

No matter how old you or your parents are, a parent’s controlling or critical behavior doesn’t seem to change. Parents have a special knack for pushing your buttons or inserting themselves into your adult life.

Some parents are overly controlling, constantly critical or intrusive in obvious ways; others are less apparent, subtle. The annoying behavior may feel on the surface inconsequential, but over time it can become stressful or irritating.

Parents get stuck in patterns of control or giving advice that they used when they were raising you—the irksome mommy/daddy-child approach that was acceptable, even necessary when you were 8-years-old or a teenager. As an adult leading a life that is independent of your parents, it’s likely behavior that upsets you and that you want to curtail.

Why Address a Parent’s Controlling or Critical Behavior?

Perhaps your parent offers advice under the guise of being helpful. In the moment, it can feel benign enough: an offhanded mention about how your partner didn’t mingle at a family gathering or about how you reprimanded your child. They’re seemingly innocuous comments, but before you know it, you’re second-guessing or worrying about your decisions or choices. Did your toddler’s behavior merit sending her to her room when her grandparents were visiting? Was your son experienced enough to drive his friends to the movies? Was your husband as inconsiderate as your mother implied?

In so many ways, a parent’s controlling and critical behavior infringes on our lives and erode our self-confidence. When this goes on too long with you saying nothing, tension builds and eventually you could say something that may be hurtful. An explosive reaction to a parent’s critical or controlling comments can damage your once amicable or close relationship.

One fact became clear in the research for two of my books, Under One Roof Again and Nobody’s Baby Now: Most parents want to be involved in your life and will pull back, but only if they are aware that what they say, insinuate or do upsets you.

5 Ways to Change a Parent’s Prickly Behavior

Many of us wrongly assume that we don’t have much control over how our parents act or what they say. However, it is possible to encourage behavior patterns or reinforce boundaries that work better for you while maintaining a healthy, loving connection. They may even stop a parent’s controlling or critical behavior.

Not all of these tips will apply to your relationship with your parent. But, one could help you steer the relationship in a direction that reduces your stress and even any guilt you may feel.

  • Make certain topics off-limits. They could well be the same ones a parent harped on when you were a kid—your weight, your friends, your hair, your love life. This is easier to do than you think. Parents are often unaware that their statements or opinions can come off as hurtful judgment.

    Try saying: “Mom, I know you think I’m too thin/heavy, but it really upsets me when you keep reminding me. Let’s make my weight (or boyfriend or money management) off limits. I love you and know you want the best for me, but your comments don’t help. They only make me feel worse about myself or my choices.”

    Don’t be surprised if whatever you’ve put on the “off-limits” list comes up again. Be patient, old habits are hard to break. A calm reminder will help: “Mom, that topic is off limits, please.”
  • State your perspective. Some interactions call for a gentle reminder that a parent’s comments feel less like caring advice and more like an interrogation. Acknowledge their compassion, concern or interest then shift the conversation to what their comments sound like from your point-of-view.

    Try saying: “It feels like you are judging me” or “I don’t feel as if you trust me to make decisions” or “Comments like these make me feel like I can’t be independent.” Focusing on your feelings also reduces the chances of sounding like you are on the attack, which can lead to the very conflict you’re trying to avoid.
  • Share less. By speaking less or not at all about certain topics, you control the conversation. You close any openings for a parent to comment. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by issues with a spouse or struggles with a friend—and know a parent’s input would only overwhelm you—don’t mention it. Unless you want a parent to weigh in on your dating life or living arrangement, for instance, safeguard the details of a new relationship. This can be a challenge. In tough times, it’s normal to yearn for a parent’s support and approval. But, if your relationship with your parent has fallen into a pattern of criticism—and not much support—consider this option.
  • Ease up on responding immediately to persistent calls or texts. In some parent-adult child relationships, frequent communication ups the chance for conflict. If this applies to you: Check voice messages and texts to be sure there’s no emergency, then respond when it’s convenient for you. You could also set specific days and times to chat and catch up so your parent does not have 24/7 access to you.
  • Alter traditions. Most families have traditions, be they weekly, monthly, or annually around different holidays. As an adult, some of them simply don’t work for you anymore. Perhaps you have to share the holidays with your spouse’s family. Or, your children’s schedules make some traditions impossible to maintain. Or—and, this is perfectly valid, although you it may not feel like it—you may dislike a tradition for one reason or another. Changing is easy if you moved away, but if distance isn’t your excuse, you need to be clear.

    Try saying: “Friday nights dinners are not going to work for me anymore.” You might state that the children have rehearsals or sport practices or your dating someone who likes to go out on Friday nights, or you are too exhausted after working all week. Don’t leave a parent with expectations that you might or might not show up. Be firm; they will be delighted if one day you call to say, “I’ll be over Friday for dinner.”

It is incredibly easy for parents to forget that you are a grownup with a life that is separate from theirs. If you want to keep their interference reasonable, you will need to take the lead and try to enforce tweaks that will do the job. In the end, your attitude and the relationship you are likely to be far more pleasurable.