Parental control and lifelong mental well-being

Every parent hopes their children will grow up to be healthy, happy and well-adjusted adults. We’ve also all heard parenting advice from different perspectives on any number of topics to help ensure this end result. 

At the risk of adding to a flooded market, I will pass along some research pointing to one more way to improve mental health and well-being of children throughout their lives. 

This has to do with how parents control their children. A study out of University College London compared behavioural and psychological control and found parents who attempt to psychologically control their kids end up doing more harm than good. 

Psychological control involves not letting kids make their own decisions, not giving them reasonable privacy and encouraging feelings of dependence. It occurs when parents try to control the child’s emotional state or beliefs. They may use guilt to make a child feel they won’t be loved if they don’t do what parents want. At its most basic level, psychological control damages a child’s sense of self.

Behavioural control is different. This includes parents setting limits on specific behaviours such as having curfews or expectations about chores or homework. This is a necessary part of parenting and not associated with issues later in life. The difference here is that behavioural control doesn’t limit the way a child feels. 

In this study, people who perceived their parents to be more psychologically controlling, grew up to have significantly lower mental well-being throughout their adult lives. 

In contrast, those who described their parents as warm and responsive were happier adults. 

Not surprisingly, when a child has a secure emotional attachment to their parents, they are better able to form secure attachments in adulthood as well.

So the take home message is – having expectations is a good thing. Set limits and boundaries for your children but also talk about why the limits are there. Don’t expect your kids to agree with all of them and take the time to listen to their objections or questions. This doesn’t mean you don’t hold firm on your expectation, but it lets them know their opinions are respected. Sometimes you will agree to disagree.

Whenever possible, let your kids make their own decisions. Making choices and even mistakes (when it’s safe and age appropriate) is how we all learn to take responsibility for our actions. The earlier we start working on this, the better.

Above all, love your kids and show them every day. 


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