Being the child of overprotective parents can be a brutal ordeal that affects not only early development but our behavior, habits and neuroses in adulthood. The term “overprotective parents” can encompass a wide variety of experiences – from the garden variety controlling parents who sought to enforce your curfew to narcissistic parents who become “enmeshed” with their children in a dysfunctional manner. Some children may have been abused, mistreated, constantly subjected to surveillance and lived in a perpetual “panopticon” in their childhood environment, while others might have had a greater range of freedom.
Whatever level of the spectrum they may have experienced as the children of overprotective parents, the following eleven symptoms can arise when they’re adults:
1. When someone tries to control them, they rebel. The best way to make someone who had overprotective parents uncomfortable? Try to force them to do something rather than letting them do what they want on their own terms. Children of overprotective parents have issues with the concept of “control” as adults. They despise losing control but they also resent being controlled.
Since they were heavily micromanaged in childhood, the last thing they need is someone else telling them what to do. Saying they can’t do something becomes more of a challenge than a demand. Even a perceived attempt at trying to control them can cause someone who had overprotective parents to feel threatened. Their rebellion in adulthood can come at a cost if they dismiss any and all advice as an attempt to control them rather than realizing that some advice may actually work best for their own self-interest.
2. They may become perfectionistic control freaks and mirror the behavior of their parents. Children who have overprotective parents that are also narcissistic especially have issues with letting go of control in every facet of their lives. This is usually because they had none of it to begin with as children. They can become perfectionists in an effort to regain that sense of power over their lives and themselves, with the underlying belief that if they are perfect, they can finally become their own authority.
These deep-seated issues with perfectionism can manifest in many different ways – from the innocuous to the destructive. It could look like anything from being the highest performer at school at the risk of their own mental health to developing eating disorder issues in an effort to exercise agency over their own bodies. In trying to control things, they tend to lose more control.
3. They usually go through a wild phase. Whether behind their parent’s backs as teenagers or as soon as they become independent as adults, children of overprotective parents tend to go through a period of high-risk or impulsive behavior. This period is usually intense and filled with things to compensate for the lack of freedom they were granted in childhood. It can include the abuse of drugs, alcohol, 24-hour partying, indiscriminate sexual encounters, or even escalate to criminal activities.
4. They exhibit attachment styles that can sabotage them in relationships. Children of overprotective parents may not have the securest attachment styles in adulthood. After all, at an early age, they learned that the only way to please their parents was to obey them. As a result, they may be insecure, anxious or avoidant in romantic relationships, seeking to cater the needs of others ahead of their own or to avoid relationships altogether.
Those who exhibit an avoidant attachment style may not even pursue relationships because to them a relationship poses a threat to their sense of control over their lives. Meanwhile, children who exhibit insecure or anxious attachment styles may also gravitate towards partners who seek to control them like their parents did.
5. They display people-pleasing attitudes. Unless they’ve done inner work to recognize and set boundaries, children of overprotective parents can be anxious about pleasing others as adults. This is a habit that was ingrained in them as children. They learned how to please people in order to survive – to avoid punishment from their parents or to garner praise. So it’s no wonder that as adults, they can struggle with learning how to say “no” or to express their authentic selves.
6. They develop disparate inner parts or personas that represent the parts they repressed as children or teenagers. As children, they were taught to not be “naughty” – whatever that meant to their overprotective parents. Their overprotective parents (especially if these were narcissistic parents) may have told them horrifying tales of what would happen if they ventured outside of their comfort zone (causing them great anxiety and fear of stepping outside of that comfort zone as adults). Depending on the culture that a child of overprotective parents was raised in, this could look like anything from always getting good grades to never speaking to someone of the opposite sex after school hours.
The more restrictive and traumatic their childhood environment, the more likely these children will develop “inner parts” or shadow selves – personas that represent the unfulfilled needs of childhood. These personas can represent everything from The Party Girl to The Nymph to The Rage Machine. Whatever emotions or choices your parents scrutinized heavily, look within and see if you can recognize these “parts” and how they’ve come out throughout your life.
Someone who was never allowed to have a social life or date, for example, may embody The Nymph in adulthood (being highly promiscuous), while someone who was asked to always smile through their anger may have an overly rageful part of them that comes out in maladaptive ways.
7. They engage in impression management. Most of their lives, children of overprotective parents were taught that they needed to be perfect and overly cautious. As a result, they might work to represent themselves in the best way possible throughout all professional, social and personal situations. What they have to learn, however, is that it’s okay to be authentic and imperfect as well.
8. If they have children themselves, they tend to veer on the side of being very liberating as to avoid the mistakes of their parents, or become rigidly controlling like their parents. The children of overprotective parents might be prone to giving their children all the freedom in the world because they never experienced it themselves. On the other hand, some may also become like their parents if they haven’t done the sufficient inner work and introspection. However, balance is essential. As parents themselves, they learn that they don’t have to sacrifice discipline or fun – they can meet the needs of their children in a far more validating manner without giving up their authority completely.
9. Sensitivity or hypervigilance to criticism. Children of overprotective parents can be sensitive to criticism because they’ve heard it all their lives. What they did, who they interacted with, and how well they achieved always came under heavy scrutiny. As a result, they may be overly anxious about how others are assessing them or what people think. As adults, they have to learn to care more about what they think of themselves and develop a sense of self-validation.
10. They think about what their parents would think of their decisions, even if they are no longer around to control them. Even when children of overprotective parents become adults and become financially independent, they may still hear the critical voices of their parents when it comes to making decisions. They might wonder if their choice of a boyfriend is really the choice their mother would approve of, or have doubts about the career they’re pursuing if they know that their father had other plans for them.
The trick is to start to slowly replace that critical inner voice and distinguish it from your own. Refocus on your own intuition and rebuild a sense of confidence that is separate from your upbringing.
11. They associate their self-worth with their restraint and carry a sense of toxic shame. Children of overprotective parents might learn that they are only worthy if they show discipline in every aspect of their lives. They can carry a sense of being defective or feeling guilty as they become more and more independent from their parents. It takes a lot of “re-parenting” and inner child work as adults for them to develop a sense of worthiness that does not rely on the approval of their parents.