Causes of Social Anxiety: Overprotective and Controlling Parents

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“DANIEL!” My mom screamed.

Uh-oh. What grievous crime had I committed this time?

Looks like I shattered the cat’s box by stomping on it, trying to empty the contents.

…A heinous sin.

One my mother got really upset about.

“He doesn’t even know that plastic breaks when it gets cold outside,” I overheard her saying to my father.

My mom and I get along today.

…But that’s not how things went when I was a child.

Can you relate?

Do you (or did you) have a parent always riding your case?

Or are you maybe the “helicopter parent,” the one always hovering around your child watching their every move?

If you have social anxiety, or if you’re a concerned parent, you may know exactly what I’m talking about.

Overprotective and controlling parents aren’t the only cause of social anxiety.

Maybe they’re not even a leading cause of social anxiety. I don’t know. I haven’t seen any research on it.

But a parent-child relationship characterized by control, overprotection, and criticism certainly causes social anxiety in many cases.

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How and Why Do Control and Overprotection Lead to Social Anxiety? 

In my case, I don’t believe my mom’s control and criticism caused my social anxiety.

I believe I biologically had a predisposition toward social anxiety first.

Why?

My dad was the highly anxious, shy type. He had it as an adult. And it clearly followed from his childhood. My sister was also quite shy. So, the biological theory of my shyness makes good sense.

Then, my mom’s criticism and control amplified my social anxiety many times. In other words, it created a “conditioned response.”

By nature, I probably had moderate social anxiety. With the way I was raised, the social anxiety became severe. Phobic. A full-blown mental illness.

I’m a strong-willed person. And I was the same as a child. Fiercely independent. Wanting my mom present. But still insisting on having some independence.

And she wanted to have more influence over me than I was willing to allow.

Definitely sounds like trouble’s abrewin’ with those dynamics in place, doesn’t it?

With a healthier relationship dynamic, one that encourages and supports independence and self-confidence, I could have ended up with mild social anxiety.

But that’s not the way our relationship played out.

With control, children sense it. They naturally resist it. The parent gets angry and responds with greater control measures. The child resists and pushes back.

Feeling disrespected, the parent gets increasingly frustrated. They continue to react with control and anger. And they even intensify their response.

The child becomes anxious with each controlling comment or behavior. “Knock that off!” “You need to…” “Why don’t you…” And that greatly increases social anxiety over the years.

At some point, the child crosses the line into full-blown social anxiety disorder. Every attempt they make for personal freedom gets shut down. That happens at different times in life because of various relationship dynamics.

But it does happen.

What could a parent do to break this cycle?

They need to set healthy boundaries. That means giving your child appropriate limits for their age and maturity.

Don’t let them play with firecrackers at age 7. But don’t make them ask you permission to go the bathroom either.

Relax your controls. Work on letting go of your fears of what could happen if you don’t have certain rules in place for your child. Allow mistakes.

Sometimes, deeply-rooted psychological issues feed your fear and insecurity. For example, you were physically abused by your parents. So, you learned the world was out-of-control and a terrifying place.

You internally overreact to your own fear by attempting to control your child’s life. Perhaps you become as physically abusive as your parents. Or maybe you do even worse things.

You have good intentions to “keep your child safe” and help them learn to be “disciplined adults.” But really, you cause them more harm than good.

Parents with controlling personalities, unfortunately, haven’t learned healthy boundaries themselves. So of course, they enforce the same unreasonable standards with their children.

It’s incredibly difficult to learn what’s healthy on your own if you haven’t already. So, working with a professional therapist or counselor makes sense.

But that’s not the only way social anxiety happens because of control and overprotection.

How A Lack of Freedom to Experience New Things Can Lead to Social Anxiety Disorder

Remember merry-go-rounds? I haven’t been to children’s playgrounds in a long while. But apparently merry-go-rounds don’t exist anymore.

Too many lawsuits apparently. Okay, that’s understandable from a practical perspective. Cities don’t want to be sued. (Although remarkable exceptions to this exist. For example, in Wales, England, “The Land” is an adventure playground that lets children cut with hacksaws and start fires. No kidding.)

But look at this from a parent/child perspective.

Say you have a 7-year-old who wants to go on a merry-go-round (replace this with another perceived danger for children if you have to). Back in the day, everyone had been on merry-go-rounds many times by that age.

A certain parent, however, doesn’t let their child on a merry-go-round until they turn 7.

How’s the child gonna react?

They’ll be anxious to some degree. Perhaps highly anxious, right? Because, it’s a new experience. They’re not used to the high-speed spinning.

How should they sit? Do they need to hold on? Or should they let their arms and head flail out? This creates a dizzy feeling, which feels kinda good.

It works the same way with social experiences.

If a child is constantly subjected to overly strict boundaries, they’ll be anxious and fearful teens and adults. Their comfort zone stays small. And if they do push out of it, that creates intense anxiety because they’re used to negative reactions when they do.

Take an extreme example of a parent who literally controls and thwarts everything their child does. They don’t let them on the merry-go-round. They can’t play at friend’s houses. They can’t play with toys outside because they could go through the lawnmower…

And the list of what they can’t do never seems to end.

When they grow up, what will they know how to do?

They’ll be too terrified to look for a job. They won’t succeed at college because it requires lots of initiative. They’ll be too afraid to ask women for dates.

Because they’ve never been let out of their comfort zone. It’s been kept too small. And they don’t know how to function without tight control reigning over them.

Where Do Parental Control, Overprotection, and Criticism Come From?

Fear and insecurity. That usually originates from personal experience when those parents were children.

Their parents used control, criticism, and overprotection to raise them. It created fear, insecurity, and anxiety in them as children, teens, and later…adults.

And then they use the exact same strategy to raise their children. Because it’s what they learned.

History repeats itself.

The pattern may have been in place for centuries.

However, if the parent goes to therapy or a counselor, they can disrupt that negative and unhealthy cycle.

You may be able to break it on your own.

But usually what you think to do doesn’t work.

Within a couple weeks to a month, you find yourself doing the same old thing. Again.

So usually, some kind of professional help is necessary.

What Do You Do if You’re a Socially Anxious Child or Teen with Controlling Parents?

Wow. I’m impressed if this describes you. It means you have greater awareness and maturity than your parents. That’s rare, but not unusual in hurting families.

So what do you do if you find yourself in this situation?

You can try communicating with your parents in healthy ways, like so:

  1. “Mom, when I hear ‘[insert what she says]’, I feel ‘[describe how you feel about that statement].”
  2. “Dad, I’d really like to hear ‘[describe a statement that uplifts you]’. Could you say that instead?”

You use “I statements” like this because if you say,”Mom, when you say [this], I feel [this],” you’re pointing out her wrongs. That increases the likelihood of an angry and defensive response. From there the conversation usually falls apart, and you find yourself stuck in the same old controlling relationship dynamic again.

Neither of those statements you make are unreasonable.

If you don’t get the response you want, you do have another choice:

Encourage your parents to let you see a therapist.

It’s not on you to do the parenting. And many situations, even with smart and intelligent family members (including well-meaning ones), can’t be resolved without professional help.

Some families are flawed and can’t see past their own defective interactions. Others just plain don’t care.

When you tell your parents you want to see a therapist, mention it’s only for you. Don’t say anything about them or your family as a whole. Describe your negative feelings like so:

“I’m having a really hard time feeling afraid and ashamed of myself. I don’t like these feelings. And I’d like some help on overcoming them.”

Once you’re in the therapist’s office, discuss the whole situation in detail. It may take several visits.

But your therapist will know how to help your family break through your dysfunctional communication patterns.

If you find a therapist who doesn’t, keep trying different ones until you do. Some therapists suck. Others rock.

What Do You Do If You’re a Concerned Parent Who Knows You Have Control Issues?

You deserve a big pat on the back for recognizing and admitting you have something you struggle with. All 7 billion people on earth have personal struggles. And just a small percentage admit or do anything about them.

So, nice work on that!

You may not realize the pain and harm you’re preventing yourself and your child. Control issues can (but don’t always) lead to serious consequences down the line.

For example, as a teen I started drinking and partying all the time. In fact, I was the life of the party for a while…though I don’t remember most parties.

I got drunk. Rode drunk. Drove drunk. Did weed a few times. Slept around. Hated myself. Hated the world. Hated life.

And eventually became an addict (which makes your life a living hell).

In the grand scheme of things, not huge stuff for modern teens. However, I was a pretty good-hearted kid as a child that teachers and parents loved.

And yet, I ended up doing stuff  I thought only “really bad” people do. Some of it jeopardized my life and other people’s lives.

Yikes!

It was not a pleasant existence. And I’m sure this put a ton of stress on my parents too.

Anyway, it’s a cautionary tale as to what can happen because of controlling behavior.

Why’d I do all that in response?

I took the angry control and criticism personally. I didn’t feel good enough. I felt hated, not loved. So I rebelled.

Simple as that.

Doesn’t make my response okay. But you can understand why.

Interestingly, behind controlling behavior, you always have good intentions. Thoughts like:

  1. “I don’t want my child to get hurt.”
  2. “I know what’s best for my child.”
  3. “I’m doing it for their safety.”
  4. “I love and care about my child.”
  5. “My child isn’t ready to take care of themselves yet.”

However, the path to any mental illness, including social anxiety disorder, is paved with afore-mentioned “good intentions.”

Most people on the planet have good intentions. But everyone’s flawed. Some have greater flaws than others. Sometimes those flaws lead to profound consequences. And it’s hard to see the flaws in your own thinking.

Even though control and overprotection don’t seem like huge issues, they certainly can be.

So what do you do?

Work on the issues feeding it.

Usually that means going to a counselor, therapist, support group, or even 12-step group (if you have an addiction).

Trying to resolve your own personal issues alone rarely works. Most people can’t figure out what to do.

Counselors and therapists give you the foundation. Then, you have your own variation within that.

Maybe you’re insecure and controlling because you had a physically and emotionally abusive parent.

Maybe you were bullied relentlessly as a child.

Maybe you grew up in a military household where you constantly moved and couldn’t feel secure and stable.

Maybe you naturally have a personality that centers on control and order.

Maybe you have a mental illness like OCD.

Maybe you’re naturally unconfident and you compensate for that with an excessive need for control.

Maybe everything out of control in your life is in complete chaos, and you want to control your children to compensate.

You could have a nearly infinite number of factors that may lead to your desire for control.

Somehow, you have to process through the experiences and present challenges that lead to this. You must find a healthier way to live your life.

…And usually it takes help from a professional counselor/therapist to work through. Perhaps some amazing medication too. But only the legal kind!

Why Control Really Only Provides False Security Anyway

Why should you work on letting go of control? Look at this independently from how it may affect your relationship with your child.

Let’s say you just love to feel in control. I do sometimes. I feel happy and secure when things go exactly my way.

…Except people and situations rarely work out my way. They might sometimes. And I can certainly try what I can to get them to do that.

But ultimately, I’m completely powerless over other people and situations. They work out precisely their own way.

Control doesn’t work. It doesn’t even exist.

Go ahead. Try and control your spouse, best friend, or a situation at work. I guarantee it won’t work out exactly the way you want.

Look back on your life. Do you have exactly the job you want? The spouse you thought you’d end up with? The home you’ve always dreamed of? Do your children do what you say? Your parents? Friends?

Some of those work out exactly how you hope. But when you look closely, you have to admit most of it did not.

If you had complete control in your life, it would be much different than it is now.

And realize how much energy you expend trying to control other people and situations. It’s exhausting.

You might work all kinds of extra hours to get a promotion. You may spend all your extra time organizing your home to make your parents happy.

…But then someone else gets the promotion. And your parents still aren’t happy with your home. Or your children still don’t do what you say.

Smart as you are, you can’t control much of anything. It’s a complete waste of time and energy.

But You Know What? You’ll Feel Almost Ecstatic When You Accept You Don’t Need to Be in Control

When you learn to deal with your personal struggles and need for control in healthier ways, you only win.

Scary to consider at first though, isn’t it?

Isn’t something “wrong” with you?

Will your therapist blame and criticize you?

Will you find out you’re the “bad” person you fear?

Nope.

In America, we try to cover our issues up by working and acquiring material things. If you have a big house, nice cars, and money in the bank, everything’s alright.

Who cares about anything else? That’s all that matters!

Society attaches a strong stigma to psychological issues. It seems better to hide them than to admit and deal with them.

Oh my goodness, you have to see a therapist. I hope you don’t go crazy and shoot up our workplace.

But that makes no sense…because everyone has issues. And left unaddressed, they only suck away more and more happiness out of your life.

When you do learn to cope with your issues in healthier ways, your life only gets better. And many times, one hell of a lot better.

Think about control…

Control doesn’t make you happy, does it? You get angry. Frustrated that other people won’t do as you like.

What would your life be like without that?

You’d be happier. More peaceful. You’d get more positive interactions with your family members. Your children will like you more. And they’ll misbehave less.

Your quality of life skyrockets when you work on your greatest personal challenges.

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  • ccrgirl

    I absolutely love this article! Thank you <3