My Sister Controls Her Children So Much They Cannot Function

Reader’s Question

I love my sister very much but I think she is a control freak. She is married and has two grown daughters. Both children have college degrees. One daughter is 33, has been married twice, and has a child but does not care for the child, does not work, and lives with my sister and her husband. My sister looks after the baby as well as her adult daughter. Her other daughter is in her mid-twenties and doesn’t go anywhere or do anything without my sister’s permission. Shopping with her is a nightmare because she can’t make decisions. When she leaves home without her mother, she calls her constantly. She can’t even prepare herself lunch without asking her mother what should she eat. She does work, but still can’t make decisions without her mother’s input.

I’ve read a lot about control freaks and I am sure my sister is one. The questions I have are:

  • Is it child abuse when a parent controls their children to the point that they cannot function properly in society?
  • Why does my sister’s well-educated, intelligent husband not see any of this? He simply does whatever his wife says. He’s like a robot. He doesn’t think anything is wrong with her.
  • Is there anything that I can do to help these adult children?
  • I cannot talk to my sister. I’ve tried but she just gets mad and makes everything worse. She doesn’t think that she does anything wrong. Is she telling the truth? Does she not know she has problems?
  • My sister is so controlling, that my dying mother had to stay hooked up to a ventilator for 5 extra days, suffering and swelling, because my sister would not let her go. The doctor finally refused to resuscitate her again and suggested we get a new doctor because it was not in mom’s best interest to resuscitate her.
  • I really love my sister, but it tears my heart to watch her interact with her dysfunctional children. I try not to judge. I try to mind my own business; however, it bothers me to watch her children behave the way they do because of their poor upbringing. They are very immature. What should I do?

Psychologist’s Reply

There are times and stages in a child’s growth and development when a parent’s exercise of control is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, a young toddler cannot make a prudent decision itself about going near an electrical outlet. If the mother watches and guides every move or even prevents some actions, it’s not a bad thing. But there always has to be a balance between fostering a sense of independence and competency in children and protecting them. As the child gets older they need to learn how to take on increasing responsibility for their own choices. That’s how they learn to take care of themselves.

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The situation you describe certainly seems unhealthy, but there can be varying reasons for it. Some parents are actually dependent upon their children for a sense of worth and competency. So, they need their children to need them. Ironically, children sometimes respond to this by overly depending on their parent(s) for a sense of well-being. This produces a classic co-dependency situation in which each party plays a role in maintaining the dependency. In other cases, children who are prone to avoiding responsibility are inadvertently reinforced for this tendency or “enabled” by overly conscientious parents who are willing to pick up the slack. In still other cases, a parent may naturally tend to be so dominance-seeking within all their relationships that they manipulate situations in such a manner that everyone else in the family system subjugates themselves to the dominant person’s apparent power and authority. Sometimes the “controlling” parent is aware of what they’re doing and is very comfortable with it, but in many cases the parent is unaware not only of their motives but also of the damage that the controlling behavior does.

Whatever the origins of the problem, fostering either dependency or irresponsibility in grown children is never healthy. And confronting the controlling party directly is usually neither effective nor without adverse consequence. It is better to offer support for any small actions on the children’s part to take on more adult responsibility and move toward independence. Rather than agonize over your time spent with the children and their inability to make decisions, reinforce them for taking any actions that foster increased self-reliance. In the end, your sister will only have to face her own issues when she no longer has children willing to “enable” her controlling ways.

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