Rebecca is married with three children and is fascinated by family relationships and the interpersonal dynamics of parenting.
6 Reasons Parents Interfere in Relationships
Parents interfere with the relationships of their adult children for a variety of reasons. Often, these reasons are intertwined with the personalities of the parents themselves, as well as the complex history and nature of the parent-child relationships.
In other words, the factors involved will be deeply personal thoughts and feelings, which can make them so psychologically charged that sometimes they're difficult to put into words, much less calmly discuss with your parents. Each family and individual will be unique in how they communicate.
However, there are general trend lines that these familial conflicts tend to follow. This article will examine six of the most common:
- A Sense of Entitlement
- Misplaced Concern for Child's Welfare
- Parent Overreacts When Child Confides in Them
- Unhappy Parent Views All Relationships as Doomed
- Parent Projects Their Own Marital Problems Onto Child
- Empty-Nest Mother Struggles to Give Up Control
1. A Sense of Entitlement
In many cases, parent interference stems from a feeling of entitlement toward the grown child. The parent feels that, by dint of giving birth to and raising their child, they have the right to have some say in their child’s life through adulthood. This is not always a bad thing; many times, it stops at mere concern for the grown child’s life and gentle, well-intended advice. Unfortunately, in other cases, it goes much further than that.
Both parents have the potential for this kind of controlling behavior, though in my experience, it is generally much more common of mothers than fathers.
2. Misplaced Concern for Child’s Welfare
Misplaced concern for a person’s welfare is perhaps the leading cause of maternal interference, and probably paternal interference, too. In many mothers’ minds, their children are still children no matter how old they are. The mother has spent the better part of the last couple of decades raising and advising them in everything, and it’s hard to truly grasp that they are now adults capable of making their own decisions and living with the consequences of those choices.
If a mother doesn’t approve of her child’s choice of mate for any reason, she’s more likely to try to advise her child out of sheer habit, and perhaps out of an unconscious belief that she still knows what’s best for her kids.
3. Parent Overreacts When Child Confides in Them
From the outside looking in, no one can get a clear picture of any relationship. Many people are content to confide in their significant other rather than a parent at all times—except when there’s a serious problem. If there are issues within the relationship, people are more likely to turn to friends or family for advice. Parents are often the natural choice, as the child has a lifetime of firsthand experience of the kind of relationship the parents had and can clearly see whether their advice works.
Many times, parents who have made bad decisions can share with their grown children what they wish they’d done instead. However, seeking advice from parents can have the negative side effect of making them think that there is more bad than good. Sometimes the mere act of discussing a relationship issue or seeking advice from parents—even when there is no serious problem—can trigger them into becoming worried, overbearing, and intrusive.
Some mothers I've known see every issue within a relationship as a confirmation that their misgivings about their child’s partner were right. If someone wants to believe something about someone, they are very likely to hang on to the bits of information that support their case and ignore the others (a psychological tendency called confirmation bias). Oftentimes, this is not a conscious thing, but it can lead to very meddlesome behavior even if they truly believe they’re acting in their child's best interest.
4. Unhappy Parent Views All Relationships as Doomed
On the more dysfunctional side, mothers may interfere in a relationship or marriage because they themselves are unhappy (while I'm sure this is also true of fathers, I've seen it more often in mothers). Sadly, some parents have never been in a healthy relationship and so are convinced that any relationship their grown child is in will only lead to heartache and trauma.
They cannot accept that their child’s happiness is genuine, and so go looking for what must be wrong.
5. Parent Projects Their Own Marital Problems Onto Child
Another related reason for meddling is general unhappiness in the mother’s own marriage. Mothers who have a very clear idea what they want but are not getting it may project their own wants and frustrations onto their children. The result is the constant needling, “Does she do ______ for you?” “Does he give you ______?” and the subsequent lectures of disapproval if the answers are unsatisfactory.
Some mothers have difficulty accepting that their children are different people and their wants, needs, and priorities will be different, too.
6. Empty-Nest Mother Struggling to Give Up Control
Finally, mothers with empty-nest syndrome, which can cause serious mental health issues, may have extreme difficulties giving up control of their child’s life. While no one truly has control over another person, it’s somewhat easier to maintain that illusion when you have the authority to dictate bedtimes and mode of dress (and mete out punishment if the rules are not followed).
This is not to say that all meddling mothers are in any way malevolent or desire to see their children unhappy. In most cases, the intent is quite the opposite. However, mothers are humans, too. They have their emotions and imperfections, and sometimes they allow their intentions to cloud their judgment and get in the way of what they’re trying to do for their children.
What to Do When Parents Interfere With Relationships
It can be difficult to navigate the dynamic of an overbearing parent who interferes with their grownup child's life. The conflict can adversely affect you, your partner or spouse, your parent(s), and your relationships with them. It can also have downstream effects on your own children and the rest of the family.
Fortunately, this is hardly a new phenomenon and there are a number of psychologists and therapists who have written and spoken about it. The following is a list of a few of the different tactics one might use to not only defuse the situation but also to assert independence from mom and dad without upsetting them or making them feel disrespected.
Establish Boundaries and/or Limit Contact
Many children aren't able to establish boundaries before adulthood and this is normal. However, once you are your own person—and especially if you are in a serious, committed relationship—it is healthy to create and enforce physical and emotional boundaries. If a parent is being toxic, it is perfectly acceptable to limit contact. In many cases, the parent will take a hint and adjust their behavior.
Be Selective About What You Share
In a perfect world, we'd love to share everything with our parents. However, in reality, this can be risky. You likely know your parents' emotional limitations better than anyone. If you know a certain subject is a trigger for your parent, it might be best to just not bring it up.
For example, if your significant other practices a different religious faith and you know this bothers your dad, it might not be a good idea to start off your Christmas visit home by describing the temple service you two attended the week before.
Take Care of Yourself and Your Significant Other First
Part of being an adult is knowing how to take care of yourself, physically and emotionally. Part of being a good partner is prioritizing your significant other's needs and feelings over everyone else's, including your parents. Self-care takes on a whole new dimension when you're in a committed relationship.
Learn to Identify When a Parent Is Projecting
Licensed marriage and family therapist Angela R. Wurtzel says that projection is usually unconscious and has more to do with the parent's shortcomings than your own. Look for the signs of projection, such as being overly critical, micromanaging, and not respecting boundaries, so that you can identify when their reactions and advice are in bad faith.
Listen to Others
On the other hand, a meddlesome parent might be on to something, even if their communication skills are lacking. If multiple family members and friends are raising the same concern, it may be worth listening and evaluating.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.