Adult Children Dysfunctional Families Need for Control

Adult Children and the Need for Control

Feeling out of control is scary for most people, but even more so for adult children.

The term adult children (or adult child) refers to individuals that grew up in dysfunctional families. This includes having parents, caregivers, or close family members who struggled with substance use, mental health issues, rage, narcissistic behaviors, or were abusive. Adult children experience developmental or relational trauma as a result of those experiences.

Living in a dysfunctional family is scary and unpredictable, especially when you’re a child.

Trying to control people and situations is a coping strategy that adult children develop to deal with chaotic and dysfunctional family situations. It is normal and adaptive. In other words, your desire to control everything and everyone is an understandable outcome of growing up in an overwhelming and traumatic family environment.

Ways adult children try to feel in control

Trying to control our surroundings as children helped us feel safe. However, this coping strategy typically causes problems and damages relationships in adulthood.

Control issues can show up in many different ways. Some are obvious and some are subtle. They can be as benign as needing our socks to be folded in a particular way or as devastating as bullying our family and friends into doing things that violate their values.

Efforts to feel in control can show up as:

  • Feeling uncomfortable with uncertainty
  • Getting upset when things don’t go your way
  • Being inflexible
  • Telling people what they should think, feel, or do
  • Difficulty being spontaneous or having plans change
  • Perfectionism
  • Difficulty delegating or asking for help
  • Being highly critical of yourself and others
  • Anxiety and ruminating
  • Denying or not showing your feelings or needs
  • Manipulating
  • Threatening or giving ultimatums
  • Nagging

 These controlling behaviors cause problems for us as individuals and in our relationships. They put undue stress on us. They cause us to be harsh and critical of ourselves.

We feel like we have to be perfect, fix everything, and know what to do at all times. We unfairly project our fear and anger onto others through our efforts to control them.

Controlling behaviors reflect our difficulty trusting others and denial of our own feelings and needs to avoid being vulnerable.  

Understanding Your Need for Control

Beneath controlling behaviors is both fear and the ego-driven belief that our way is the “right” way.

Craving safety

When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, everything feels out of control and you feel helpless.

Trying to control people and situations gives us a sense of power, a sense that we won’t be victimized anymore. We feel safe when we feel in control. This is why we hold onto our desire for control so tightly.

For most of us, giving up control feels scary. This is a remnant from childhood, a belief that scary, awful things will happen (again) if we don’t control them.

Difficulty trusting

At the root of control issues is difficulty trusting others. In dysfunctional families, adults aren’t always reliable and trustworthy.

Adults may be simultaneously in denial about the level of dysfunction and consumed with efforts to fix the problems. Meanwhile, children are often told that “nothing’s wrong” or they’re blamed for the family problems.

This erodes your fundamental ability to trust. It leaves children confused and emotionally neglected (and sometimes physically neglected and/or abused).

When children can’t trust their parents, they respond with an intense need to control things themselves.  

Surrendering control

Overcoming your need for control involves surrendering. Surrendering control means we let things happen naturally; we take responsibility for our own feelings and actions but don’t try to force others to do or be what we want.

We allow others (and ourselves) to make mistakes. We accept that things won’t always go the way we want—and we can cope while remaining calm and flexible.

Instead of using our energy to control things, we can use it to enjoy things!

Recognizing what you can control—and what you can’t

Control isn’t all or nothing. We can control some things and not others. We can control our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, but not what others do or feel.

So, while you can’t make your parent stop drinking or your spouse get a job, you can decide how you handle these situations.

You’re not completely powerless because you can control your feelings and reactions.

Take responsibility for your problems and mistakes—not other people’s

Children in dysfunctional families often become parentified and take on some of their parents’ responsibilities. This heightened sense of responsibility lends itself to our belief that we’re responsible for fixing other people’s problems and that we need to be in charge.

Instead, focus on the problems that are truly yours to solve. Codependents and adult children want to solve everyone’s problems, but this isn’t possible and it often creates more stress and relationship problems.

Watch for all-or-nothing thinking that tells you that your way is the best and only way. Most of the time, there’s more than one decent way to do things.

When we stop trying to control other people, we choose to trust that they can make good decisions. And if they don’t, those aren’t our problems to solve.

Detaching from other people and their problems isn’t uncaring; allowing people to figure things out for themselves is a loving and trusting act.

Giving up trying to control things also means you trust your ability to cope with whatever life has in store.

We don’t need to control everything to be happy

Accepting that we can’t control everyone and everything is essential to our happiness. As is recognizing that we don’t have to be responsible for everyone else and we don’t have to burden ourselves with the pressure to always be “right” and in control.

We all know that control is largely just an illusion; we can’t control other people or Mother Nature or most situations. There’s freedom in knowing that we have the skills to cope, that we’re resilient and that because of our life experiences, we can and will get through the challenges that we’re facing today.  

©2023 Dr. Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of

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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

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