Psychological Control: Poisonous Parenting


The villain in Disney’s Tangled is a parent…sort of.  Mother Gothel, as we know her, receives her designation as a mother when she kidnaps a young child and raises her under the guise of being her biological parent.  Throughout the film we have glimpses into Mother Gothel’s parenting style, and as would be expected from a villain, it turns out she isn’t a great parent.  In fact, she is a highly manipulative parent who uses what is known as psychological control, something common to emotionally abusive relationships.

What is Psychological Control?

Barber defines psychological control as “—. . . a rather insidious form of control that potentially inhibits or intrudes upon psychological development through manipulation and exploitation of the parent-child bond (e.g., love-withdrawal and guilt induction), negative affect-laden expressions and criticisms (e.g., disappointment and shame), and excessive personal control (e.g., possessiveness, protectiveness).”

Let’s look at seven manifestations of psychological control:

Constraining Verbal Expressions

If a parent doesn’t want to hear their child or their child’s ideas, they will accomplish this by changing the subject, interrupting, speaking for them, lecturing, ignoring comments and showing disinterest.  This doesn’t allow the child to talk, and it sends the message that what they have to say isn’t important.

Invalidating Feelings

When a child expresses a feeling, the psychologically controlling parent will often discount their feelings, assign feelings a value (good/bed, right/wrong), use sarcasm or tease the child for feeling how they do.  This can cause the child to lack confidence in both what they are feeling and in their ability to understand themselves.  It positions the parent as being the expert on what the child feels.

Personal Attack

The parent may attack the child’s sense of worth and belonging by questioning their loyalty, bringing up past mistakes or embarrassing behaviors, or being condescending or patronizing.

Guilt Induction

This involves laying guilt trips, playing the role of the martyr, or saying that if their child really cared about them, that they would do what they were asked.  It causes the child to feel that they deserve to feel badly if they don’t always do what the parent wants.


Shaming differs from guilt-induction.  Guilt is feeling badly about what you do or don’t do.  Shaming is feeling bad about who you are.  In shaming, the parent attacks the child’s character and may use insults.

Love Withdrawal

This includes threatening to stop loving your child or love them less, or to withdraw your attention as a punishment if the child doesn’t comply.  This may be evidenced by turning away in disgust, making disgruntled facial expressions, or physically leaving in order to express displeasure with their child.  It makes love seem conditional–as though it has to be earned, and it causes fear that it can be lost.

Erratic Emotional Behavior

This refers to when a parent vacillates between caring and attacking expressions.  Some days they are loving and doting, and then they are accusing and harsh.  This is often seen in alcoholic parents.  It instills a sense of fear because children don’t know what to expect.  It also causes unhealthy expectations about what loving behavior looks like.

Consequences of Psychological Control

According to research, psychological control has been found to interfere with the process of self-formation and with becoming able to function independently.  Or in other words, it makes it harder to grow up into a confident adult.  It has also been associated with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, acting out, and being impulsive and aggressive.

Moral of the story: Don’t use psychological control as your primary parenting style.  Sure, there will be times where you will slip up and use a guilt trip or respond in a less-than-optimal way to your child expressing emotion.   It happens.  You’re human.  That won’t ruin your kid.  But if these are your go-to ways of getting your child to behave, and you employ them regularly, then you may have a problem. Which means your kid is more likely to end up with problems.  There are other parenting styles and other parenting techniques that will help you to help your kids learn to behave AND to be healthy autonomous individuals who feel good about themselves and still want to have a relationship with you when they are grown.  Seek them out.

Be a hero, not a villain.  I believe in you.