I read with sad recognition the details of a new study, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, which claims that children raised by overly-controlling parents face a lifetime of mental health problems. Researchers found that people whose parents failed to respond to their needs or encouraged dependence on them scored lower in surveys of happiness and wellbeing throughout their lives.
Dr Mai Stafford, the lead author of the study, said “Parents give us a stable base from which to explore the world, while warmth and responsiveness has been shown to promote social and emotional development. By contrast, psychological control can limit a child’s independence and leave them less able to regulate their own behaviour.”
Although I have never been in any doubt that my parents loved me, both of them in their own ways sought to exercise psychological control over me, and I have borne the scars ever since.
My father was brought up in boarding schools where he learnt strict self-control. He was afraid of feelings, would physically leave the room if I expressed strong emotion, would ignore or punish me when I was frightened. I learned that my disruptive emotions were not welcome in our home and began to repress them from an early age.
My mother meanwhile was raised with a history of trauma. She was abandoned by her own parents and subsequently lost a brother to suicide. She was terrified that if she did not present a perfect front to the world, she would be abandoned again, so everything had to be flawless: her behaviour, her appearance, our home, and me.
My mother weighed me daily, cut up my food for me and spoon-fed me well into my primary school years. One of my earliest memories is of stealing and hiding food
Many of her anxieties revolved around food and the fear that I might get too fat or too thin. She weighed me daily, cut up my food for me and spoon-fed me well into my primary school years. One of my earliest memories is of stealing and hiding food; I still have a tendency to starve myself when under intense stress.
My mother also believed that the world was a dangerous place, foreseeing disaster around every corner, from the fear that I would be run over every time I crossed the road to the risk that I would be kidnapped and murdered if I travelled alone. I became afraid to leave her side, but knew that I must not voice my fears: my father would be angry with me, and my mother worry that my negativity might make me unlovable.
Throughout my childhood and well into adulthood, I followed a pattern of emotional self-control to the point of numbness, interspersed with intense spells of anxiety, panic attacks, anger and shame, when the feelings I have been repressing could no longer be held back. It was impossible to form healthy relationships as I was either too claustrophobic or too needy. In my early thirties, my anxiety became so overwhelming that I eventually had to be hospitalised. I still remember the relief when I entered the hospital: finally, I was in a place where my feelings would be heard. Equally, however, I was aware of the disturbing attraction of being in an institution: that once again somebody else would look after me the way that my mother used to. But the therapy I received there helped me to open the doors to my emotions, to let go of control and begin to voice and act on my needs.
Now aged 40, I am about to move in with a partner for the first time and I ask myself whether I can allow myself to depend on him without losing myself again. In the mirror of our relationship I see my learned helplessness, my tendency to expect him to do everything for us, my terror of expressing my feelings and risking rejection. But I’m excited by the opportunity to learn and grow together, to live as independent yet interdependent equals. I am not only the result of my upbringing; I have moved on, and have more strength than I ever could have dreamed of as a child.
Dr Stafford says that the study is not seeking to blame parents, and nor do I blame mine. Despite everything, it has always been clear to me that they had my best interests at heart. There was no malice, no cruelty, just two people, imperfectly raised themselves, who were taught the wrong lessons and passed them on to me. All that I can do is to learn from their mistakes and, by letting go of their control, finally take healthy control of my own life.