Illustration depicting a child Victoria Borges

When young teenagers perceive that their parents are trying to control their behavior through psychological and emotional manipulation, the result can be long-term negative consequences for the developing adolescent that surprisingly can persist well into adulthood. That’s what UVA researchers have found in a nearly 20-year study that began when the participants were 13 years old.

“What happens in adolescence sticks with you,” says Emily Loeb (Grad ’13, ’18), a postdoctoral researcher in the psychology department who served as lead author on the study, which was published in June in the journal Child Development. The researchers found that teenagers who perceived their parents as psychologically overcontrolling struggled as adults with forming romantic relationships. “We think that these kids have learned that relationships are a source of stress [rather than warmth and support],” Loeb says. In addition, these individuals were likely to have obtained less education by the age of 32 than other participants in the study.

Loeb emphasizes that problems don’t arise from parents’ setting rules and boundaries, but rather from their use of psychological pressures—such as guilt or making approval contingent upon compliance—as a means to try to make adolescents behave as the parents want them to.

“It is normal to want to control aspects of kids’ lives to lead them to better outcomes,” Loeb says. But seeking to tightly control every aspect of a teenager’s life “tends to backfire,” she adds. “As difficult as it is to let kids think for themselves and let them make their own mistakes, it seems to be a very necessary and fundamental part of developing independence.”