How to Deal With a Controlling Mother

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on April 12, 2021
5 min read

You’re an adult with your own career, home, and maybe some children. Does your mother still try to control your life and every decision you make? You can set boundaries with a controlling parent without damaging your relationship, experts say.

“I think the key to having a controlling parent is to have kindness and boundaries with them. Be both firm and kind, not disrespectful to them in any way, but to set boundaries in your life and choices,” says Cara Gardenswartz, PhD, a psychologist with Group Therapy LA in Beverly Hills, CA.

A controlling mother may be unhappy when you push back against her advice. Let her know you hear her words, but that you will make the final decisions about your life, she suggests. “They’re used to being in control. Give them the space to share what they think.”

Signs you have a controlling mother may range from mildly annoying comments to frequent arguments. She may often:

  • Offer you unsolicited advice
  • Criticize your decisions about your relationships, career, or money
  • Openly disagree with your parenting or housekeeping style
  • Try to make you feel guilty if you disagree with her advice, or “guilt trips”

There’s no specific age when you’re automatically an adult in the eyes of your parents, and the process of taking responsibility for your own choices may be gradual, says Jay Lebow, PhD, clinical professor of psychology at the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. Some parents may not want to let go out of concern for your well-being.

“At some point, you become an adult and start to make your own decisions, but your parent gets nervous. It gets thornier when you don’t make good decisions,” Lebow says.

Your mother may want to protect you from negative outcomes, such as trying to control your spending out of fear that you’ll wind up in debt, he says. “A parent may think, ‘Do I let my kid get a bad credit rating?’ A truly controlling parent may have a child who is perfectly capable of becoming independent, but they don’t want to let them.”

Control can start early in your relationship, but it may cause problems for adult children for years. One study published in 2020 followed 184 children from age 13 to 32. Those who had controlling parents in their mid-teens were less likely to be in a romantic relationship or achieve academic success even by their early 30s.

Many young adults are not yet financially independent even though they are living on their own in a college dorm or apartment, or have a job, Lebow says. This can blur the line between parents and children on who should make decisions.

“You may be in a phase of emerging adulthood. You’re not fully an adult and supporting yourself financially. So, what is the quid pro quo? Parents may feel that they have more say over what you do, and that doesn’t always have to do with money,” he says. “But money can become a tool in controlling your adult children. A young person is supposed to develop and begin to have an independent life. The older person should be willing to let go of control.”

If you rely on your parents for financial support, it can create a dysfunctional dynamic where your mother attaches the right to make certain decisions about your life to the loan, he adds.

When you have kids, your controlling mother may turn into an interfering grandparent, Gardenswartz says.

“It may be very hard for some grandparents to not judge you for how you’re raising your children. They may have a conflict about how you set your child’s feeding or nap time,” she says. If you rely on your mother to help with babysitting, she may not want to follow your rules on when to put the child down for a nap, for example.

Now that you’re an adult, even if your mother has always been controlling, it’s time to set some boundaries, Gardenswartz says.

“First, use detachment. Don’t get into a battle. Engage your mother in active listening,” she suggests. Active listening means you pay attention to what your mom is saying without judgment. Let her finish what she has to say before you react. “Have the confidence to say what doesn’t work for you and why.”

When you set your boundaries, a controlling mother may simply take the opposite view and dig in. Your discussion can escalate into a disagreement, where it’s hard to find a way to meet in the middle. “That’s where detachment with love comes in. Use an even, measured tone even when your mom is extra anxious or controlling,” she says.

If you want your mom to relax control, make sure you take charge of your own life. Be responsible for your own decisions and mistakes, Lebow says.

“Assert yourself by telling them who you are and what you need,” he says. Express that you have your own values and goals for your life and family. “Be respectful and try not to let every difference of opinion escalate to hostility. You can say, ‘I am raising my child the way I want to, but I realize that you have a different view.’ The job description of a grandparent should be clear: You can offer a little piece of advice, occasionally unsolicited. But you’re not the parent running the show.”

Here are some tips to help you deal with a controlling mother:

  • Don’t always cast yourself as the victim. This can make your mother feel defensive and cause more conflict. Try to use “I” more than “you” so she doesn’t feel attacked.
  • Take responsibility for your own happiness. You can’t blame every mistake you’ve made in your life on your mom’s controlling behavior.
  • Let some differences slide. Minor differences of opinion can blow up into a fight. Consider whether every debate is worth the potential pain.
  • Be willing to compromise. Keep an open mind and ear as you discuss plans or boundaries. Try to come up with solutions that both you and your mother can accept. Summarize it so you both know what you’ve agreed on.