In my personal and professional life, one of the most common problems I’ve seen people have is feeling unmotivated, empty, aimless, passive, and selfless. It is usually to the degree to which the person has been raised in a controlling environment, whether they consciously recognize it as such or not.
In this article we will overview the most common forms of controlling childrearing and the problems it creates for the person.
Forms of controlling childrearing
Active punishment is an overt and the most obvious form of controlling a human being. It frequently involves physical aggression, verbal abuse, and treating the child as a subordinate. Here, the child does something the caregiver doesn’t like, so they punish the child for being “bad.” “Bad” here can mean anything and everything the caregiver disagrees with.
Since the child is dependent on their caregiver(s), they have no other choice but to accept this treatment. Often, they are conditioned to see themselves as bad even though they did nothing wrong. As a result, they internalize such treatment and learn to blame themselves, which eventually becomes toxic, chronic guilt.
They also learn to avoid things that they really would like to do. Or deep down they believe that they are not worthy of good, nice things because they are “bad” and deserve to suffer as punishment.
This sometimes seems counterintuitive because we usually associate rewards with something positive, and it can be positive. However, caregivers commonly try to motivate the child by rewarding them for something they want the child to do, and as a result, the child often doesn’t see the intrinsic value of what they are doing.
For instance, if the caregiver promises the child a candy bar next day if they brush their teeth tonight, the child may feel motivated to brush their teeth and do it. However, what happens later if there is no external motivator to do it? Why should they feel motivated to continue?
Instead, if the caregiver takes time to actually sit down with the child and explain in length why it would be beneficial for the child to brush their teeth, then the child would likely feel an intrinsic motivation to do it. Habitually, without a need for external punishments or rewards.
For more on that, look into the book Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.
Rejection and conditional “love”
This is a more covert and passive form of punishment. Here, if the caregiver doesn’t like something that the child does or doesn’t do, instead of openly punishing the child they simply ignore them and become emotionally unavailable and dismissive.
This is a form of rejection or conditional “love.” It means that in order for the caregiver to accept the child and meet their needs, the child has to do what the caregiver wants. The child’s true needs, wants, emotions, and preferences are invalidated.
And so the child learns not to be themselves and self-erase.
Infantilization is the treatment of a human being as if they are less capable, competent, and self-sufficient than they actually are. This is very common in childrearing because caregivers often don’t trust their children and sometimes don’t even see them as human beings.
Not only that, a lot of caregivers raise their children to stay dependent, passive, and unmotivated. Granted, it’s often unintentional or with good intentions, but the result is what it is nonetheless.
And so controlling treatment is sometimes disguised and justified as “caring” and “protective,” which in actuality ends up being infantilizing. Here, the caregiver keeps treating the child below their level of maturity.
Some examples: “Don’t forget to eat.” “No, no, that’s too difficult for you.” “You won’t like that.” “Let me do it for you.” “Mommy/daddy knows what’s best for you.” And so on….
As a result, the person learns to overly rely on others to tell them what to do and to take care of them. I sometimes call it learned helplessness or learned incompetency. This often leads to adult relationships that involve a lot of dependency, manipulation, and toxicity.
Unrealistic and unfair standards
Many children are held to unrealistic standards and are expected to meet certain unfair roles and expectations.
One obvious example is role-reversal, where the child is forced into the role of an adult. Here, the child is expected to be an adult, take care of parents, siblings, or other family members, and so on.
Such a person is often described as more mature than other children, self-sufficient, one who grew up very early, responsible, and so on. While all of this is true and may seem a great thing, such a person may routinely feel incredibly alone, overwhelmed, overly tired, and overly responsible.
Also, such a person commonly doesn’t trust others very much because they learned that they have to do everything themselves, never ask for help, and that others are unreliable. Many people like that suffer from perfectionistic tendencies, an overwhelming sense of responsibility, loneliness, and difficulty building and maintaining emotionally close relationships. Some clusters of these tendencies are called counter-dependency.
Summary and conclusions
A controlling upbringing often involves active punishments and rewards (the “carrot and stick” approach), rejection, conditional “love,” infantilization, unfair standards, and more.
As a result, the person learns a multitude of harmful lessons. Here are some of the effects:
- Demotivation to do things that in the past led to feeling hurt
- Passivity and dependency on one’s caregivers or their substitutes
- No intrinsic motivation to do most things or anything
- A constant need of an external motivator
- Feeling motivated only by negative things (fear, shame, guilt, punishment)
- Feeling lost, confused, aimless, empty, and self-doubtful
- Severe lack of sense of self
- No authentic goals, interests, ambitions, and drives
- Poor self-care, self-harm, self-erasure, people-pleasing, looking for approval
- Feeling empty if there’s no one around to validate your existence
- Feeling empty when there’s no one to take care of
- Seeking controlling and dysfunctional environments (often unconsciously)
- Being controlling and seeking power over others (abusive, toxic behavior)
All of the aforementioned forms of controlling treatment robs the child of their authentic self because they have to adjust to their environment since they are small and dependent on it and can’t leave or protect themselves. A child also doesn’t have a frame of reference, therefore they are often unable to recognize their upbringing as abusive or problematic, even long into their adulthood. As a result, they may have difficulties really understand the origins of the problems they have as adults.
After recognizing the problems you have and understanding their true origins, you can start working on solutions. At this point recovery and growth become possible.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.