If You Had Controlling Parents


How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World

Dan Neuharth, Ph.D.

To the children, past, present, and future,
who lack a voice in their upbringing

May they find their voices
through the stories and insights shared here


To Marly, with love and gratitude
for her artistry, brilliance, beauty, and soul


My profound thanks and appreciation to:

Patti Breitman, superagent, for believing in this book so much and working so brilliantly to sell it.

The incredible staff at Cliff Street/HarperCollins and particularly: Diane Reverand, publisher, for her vision, wisdom, and enthusiasm; Julia Serebrinsky, editor, for her grace and attention to detail; and Pamela Pfeifer, public-relations genius.

The courageous pioneers who volunteered to be interviewed for this book and, in so doing, made new meaning of their own difficult childhoods by helping countless others.

My psychotherapy clients, who teach me more each day.

My steadfast men's group: Scott Cameron, Ph.D.; David Frankel, Ph.D.; Scott Lines, Ph.D.; Mike Shuell, Ph.D.; Alan Vitolo, Ph.D.; and Robert Wynne, Ph.D.

My original family: with love to mother Loretta, father Al, and sister Jan.

My brother-in-law Joseph Keusch, niece Danielle, and nephew Alec, all of whom bring smiles to the world.

Sandy the wonderdog, for offering unconditional love and unlimited play.

My mentors and teachers: Walter Anderson; Robin Acker, M.A., MFCC; Adria Blum, Ph.D.; Bernie Carter, M.A., MFCC; Janeece Dagen, M.A., MFCC; Sandy Graber, M.D.; Roberto Gurza, M.A.; Jerry Schwartz, Ph.D.; and Lucy Scott, Ph.D.

Shannon Tullius and the staff, presenters, and volunteers of the Maui Writer's Conference.

Manuscript readers and supporters: Joan Cox, Lori Hurwitz; and especially Brooke Passano, M.A., MFCC.

And, finally, my partner, Marly Perkins, Ph.D., for her unwavering support, countless hours of reading drafts, and always on-target suggestions. Marly, this book would not exist had you not contributed all your gifts.


Some readers may find that coming to grips with a difficult childhood can spark upsetting feelings. Far from being uncommon, this frequently happens in psychotherapy, which is designed to explore troubling feelings in a safe setting. This book is not intended to be a substitute for formal psychotherapy, though many readers may find it a useful adjunct to treatment. I urge any reader who experiences abnormal depression or anxiety to consult a licensed psychotherapist

hen I use the word “parents” in this book, I'm talking about the adults who exerted the most significant control over your childhood—birth parents, guardians, grandparents, stepparents, aunts or uncles. I tend to use “parents,” plural, for grammatical simplicity even though only one parent or adult figure in your family may have been the controller.

This book includes case studies drawn from comprehensive interviews with a diverse group of forty women and men, ages twenty-three to fifty-eight, who grew up controlled. Collectively, these forty adults have more than six million hours' experience growing up in controlling environments. (Detailed information about the participants and interviews can be found in Notes on Research on pp. 239—240.) Although each person's story was unique, similarities in how they were controlled transcended age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and family history—and strongly mirrored the patterns I've encountered with private clients from controlling families.

I promised confidentiality to all participants so they could talk openly and honestly. Therefore, all names are pseudonyms. I have also slightly altered age, profession, or other details that might identify those interviewed. In some cases, to honor confidentiality I have combined details of more than one person's experience into a composite character. Where needed, I have altered quotes for grammar or clarity. Other than these alterations, every story, incident, and observation you
will read was as told to me. None of it is fiction, even though at times the enormity of control may seem unbelievable. I hope the stories and insights will touch you, teach you, and help you to heal, as they have me.

I've learned a great deal about control and healing from my clients and those I interviewed, but there is much I have still to master. I have yet to work out all the mixed feelings and control-related problems between myself and my own parents. You, not I, are the expert on your life, needs, and upbringing. I urge you to take this book at your own pace and on your own terms. I want
to feel in control as you read. You don't have to agree with the entire book to find some parts pertinent. And keep in mind that while controlling parents often view the world in all-or-nothing terms, few situations in life are absolute. My goal in writing this book is to remind you that you are not alone, that you can make sense of your childhood, and that you can heal yourself.

This is a book of discovery and resolution. I invite you to discover what may lie underneath some of your most stubborn and troubling habits, patterns, or problems. I urge you to join me on a path toward resolving anything unfinished with your parents, whether they are living or dead. I ask you to fashion a more clear and full view of your upbringing so that you can make peace with your past.

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