When the apron strings are bound too tight

By Emma H Hopson, Judi Light Hopson, Ted Hagen

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Some parents try to retain control of their children's lives long after they've reached adulthood.  Photo / Thinkstock
Some parents try to retain control of their children's lives long after they've reached adulthood. Photo / Thinkstock

Do you have adult friends who are controlled by their parents? Do they still live at home and take orders from mum or dad?

We know people in their sixties in this situation. Their parents treat them as significant others instead of free agents.

Psychologists refer to this type of emotional control as "emotional incest".

"My mother treats me as if I'm her husband," says Phil*, a 40-year-old dentist.

"She keeps track of my life moment by moment."

In these types of relationships, a mother may lack a husband. So she mentally transforms her son into her life partner.

There are fathers who try to control their adult daughters, too. And, mothers may also try to control their daughters - not just their sons.

These relationships involve a parent trying to sabotage independence from the time a child is very young.

"We all know males called 'Mama's boys'," says psychologist, Alice*.

"The problem really intensifies if the son wants to date or get married. Mama is angry that another woman is in the picture."

Alice is working with a man in therapy who is trying to break the chains. This adult son is in a fight for his life, she explains.

"Daniel* still lives in his childhood bedroom, although he's 48. His mother makes all of the rules and calls all of the shots."

So how did Daniel remain tied to his mother's apron strings?

Alice says a parent invading an adult child's life gives a clear message: "Do what I say, or I will not love you."

A parent holding on too tightly does the following:

* She refuses to give her stamp of approval. The mother makes the child feel inadequate to live independently.

* She fails to form a strong bond with another male. If she's married, she continually points out her husband's weaknesses.

A parent practising these behaviours is terrified of abandonment. By holding onto the child, this is the parent's best insurance of always having someone to cling to.

An adult who's never been encouraged to make decisions can grow weaker and more fearful as time goes on. So, he or she stays close to mum or dad.

"I was 50 when my controlling mother died," says a woman called Rhonda*.

"I became so fearful I could not leave the house for a year."

While her mother was healthy, she did Rhonda's laundry, figured her daughter's chequebook, and told the waiter what Rhonda wanted to order in a restaurant.

"Mother literally held me hostage," she says.

To break this kind of bondage, an adult child must do the following:

* Talk about the need to separate. It helps to tell a parent the truth about living separate lives.

* Do keep secrets from the parent. Don't reveal your cheque account balances or allow parents to know too much about you.

* Take on full financial responsibility. Money issues will often wreck the freedom of an adult child in this type of situation.

If you need to break free, it's important to expect tension. The parent will definitely act out anger. There will be an emotional roller coaster, especially in the beginning.

Explain to your mother or father that you understand the fear of abandonment from his or her perspective. But, take steps to slowly turn the tide.

"Your parent will not likely outlive you," says Rhonda.

"Gaining independence now will save you from extreme fear later on."

* Some names in this article have been changed to protect people's identities.

- AAP

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