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Controlling Parents = Mean College Kids

Controlling Parents = Mean College Kids

A provocative new study suggests use of a manipulative, deriding parenting style harms college kids in many ways including instilling a derogatory relationship pattern that kids may use with their own friends.

Jamie Abaied, a University of Vermont psychologist, discovered college students whose parents lay on the guilt or try to manipulate them may translate feelings of stress into similar mean behavior with their own friends.

Those students’ physical response to stress influences the way they will carry out that hostility — either immediately and impulsively or in a cold, calculated way, concludes Abaied, a University of Vermont assistant professor of psychological science.

Building on her previous research on the effects of various parenting styles on college-age children, Abaied looked at the link between “parental psychological control” and the young adults’ relationships with peers.

Her study, published by the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, involved 180 mostly female college students and was a collaboration with graduate research assistant, Caitlin Wagner, the lead author on the paper.

In today’s world, even after children leave home as legal adults, college students often still depend on parents for financial, as well as emotional, support. Some parents will nit-pick and find fault or threaten to withdraw affection (or money) as punishment or to force a desired outcome.

With today’s technology, parents can exercise that control wherever their kids go — with texts, email, and social media keeping them in constant contact.

“You can do that from far away,” Abaied says. “You don’t have to be in person to manipulate your kids’ thoughts and emotions.”

The result can stunt their budding independence, Abaied concluded. “We need to be really mindful of how influential the parents are.”

College students are less studied in relation to parental control, Abaied says, though psychologists have long recognized that heavy-handed parents trigger “relational aggression” in their children.

Relational aggression involves a relationship with a friend or loved one and actions that harm feelings or damage social status: exclusion from a social event, rumor-mongering, backstabbing, or public embarrassment.

With younger children, one might not invite another to a birthday party. Adolescents might try to embarrass or ostracize a peer, as in the “Mean Girls” movie about a high-school outsider who infiltrates then obliterates a popular female clique.

The current study is unique as it included the biological or physiological responses to stress when a student carries out relational aggression. In her lab, Abaied and her researchers attached sensors to the students’ fingers to measure miniscule changes in sweat.

Perspiration indicates the ramping up of the sympathetic nervous system — along with an elevated heart rate and increased oxygen flow — as the body’s adaptation to perceived stress, also known as the “fight or flight” response.

In carefully crafted interviews, researchers asked the students to describe a painful event involving a close person, perhaps an argument with a roommate or a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and recorded their sweat levels.

“Basically, we were trying to get them to relive” the difficult experience, Abaied says, “just to get their bodies to demonstrate their stress response to us.”

Those who perspired more, indicating “high arousal,” got more upset. They were more hot-tempered and likely to react quickly with less thought. Researchers describe this group as the type who hit the “send” button on a nasty email right away.

Those who sweated less, with “blunted arousal,” stayed cool and collected and were more likely to think through an aggressive response.

“If you’re calm, you can be strategic and planned in your aggression,” Abaied says. “You can really use your aggression to control your relationship and stay dominant over your peers.”

To determine the level of parental control, the students completed a questionnaire. Higher parental control correlated with higher aggression. Less-controlling parents created less aggression, Abaied says.

“It seems like good parenting protects them,” she says of college students. “Good parenting prevents them from being aggressive in their peer relationships.”

Source: University of Vermont
Friend being mean photo by shutterstock.

Controlling Parents = Mean College Kids

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Controlling Parents = Mean College Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 22 Jan 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.