Dealing with a backseat parent

Backseat parents make it impossible to thrive on your own terms. Deal with them by setting boundaries and shifting your perspective.

E.B. Johnson, NLP-MP
Oct 9 · 10 min read
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Image by @estherhelen via Twenty20

by: E.B. Johnson

The relationships we share with our parents is important, but they shift and change as we both grow and age. The bond we share with our caretakers as children is entirely different from the connections we cultivate as mutual adults. Sometimes this transition happens naturally. To others, however, it comes with a little more difficulty, and a lot more growing pains.

It’s challenging to see your children as the adults that they are. It’s hard to see them making their own decisions and their own mistakes too. For this reason, you can find your caretakers being overbearing, or engaging in “backseat parenting”. While it may come from a place of love, it becomes a major wall and point of contention in our relationships with them. If you want to preserve the bond you share, you need to learn how to deal with a backseat parent in the right (and mature) way.

We have a right to lead our own lives.

The love a parent holds for a child is a unique thing. We come into the world so innocent and helpless that our caretakers have to go above-and-beyond to ensure we grow up nourished, loved, and supported. After a decade or two of this behavior, they fall into a routine of seeing us as this helpless, innocent thing. That doesn’t serve our adult relationships, however, when we crave branching out on our own to explore everything that speaks to us in the world.

We have a right to lead our own lives. We have a right to love the people we want to love and work the jobs we want to work. In order to be happy, we have to live a life that is authentically aligned with our values and hopes — not our parents’. We are the only ones who have to deal with the heavy conscience that comes with a life unlived. Be who you want to be and allow your parents to lead their own journey.

You have to find the courage to stand up for yourself. You have to start setting boundaries and understand that — sometimes — space is the best thing to preserve the child-adult relationship that you and your parents share. We all thrive when we set limits for ourselves. We thrive when we know what’s expected and where the line lies. Start sticking up for yourself and believe in your divine right to lead your own life. You are not your parents. Create a life for yourself and do it before it’s too late.

How backseat parents operate.

Are you living under the shadow of a backseat parent? Is your mother or father over-protective, or constantly getting in the way? It’s up to us to stand up for ourselves and do what’s right for our wellbeing. To do that, though, we need to know how a hovering parent impacts us, and understand the signs of a backseat parent in our lives.

Controlling relationships

Does your parent try to control your relationships — no matter how old you get? Do they quiz potential partners, or judge your friends as less-than-worthy? One of the most common signs of a backseat parent is relationship interference. Whether platonic or romantic, they butt in and get in the way whenever possible. This can be to drive the outsiders away (in order to keep you to themselves) or it can be to protect you from those they see as “dangerous”.

Being overprotective

The backseat parent is an overprotective one who often seems dedicated to preventing you from experiencing life. Usually, this comes from a genuine place of care and worry. When your parents love you, they want the best for you. When you were helpless, they kept you from danger. These habits carry on into adulthood, and they often require a reality check to curtail. As you grow up, you’ll need your parents less and less, and that’s okay.

Preventing growth

Some parents relish the experience of raising children so much that they work hard to keep their children reliant on them long after they should. This can be done both subtly and overtly, and in both instances it’s toxic. When our parents do too much for us, or cause us to lean on them for emotional, physical, or financial support — they prevent growth, and they prevent us from exploring those deeper places in our ability and skill set.


Scaremongering is another tactic the backseat parent might utilize in order to keep you close and protected by them. Does your parent or caretaker always imagine the worst in everything and everyone? Have they taught you to see fear and doubt behind every corner, behind every new relationship? This can come down to their good intentions, or their need to control what you do, who you do it with, and how you do it. While our parents should certainly teach us to be wary of the world, building us up on fear leaves us paralyzed.

Over-the-top consoling

What happens when something goes wrong in your life? Does your parent support you, but encourage you to move on? Or do they go above-and-beyond to console you — preventing you entirely from finding personal resolution? This over-the-top consoling isn’t healthy. As individuals (especially as children) we have to learn how to soothe ourselves and our emotions. Our parents won’t always be there for us, and if we don’t learn to control our own emotions, they’ll overwhelm us.

Pressure to perform

Another common technique that backseat parents use is the application of pressure. Rather than controlling you outright, they burden you with their expectations, which are quietly held over you like an axe. You can feel their eyes on you, and you know what threat lies behind you if you don’t succeed to their standards. They can go so far as to manipulate you by withholding love when you fail to live up to whatever expectations they decide to set in school, your relationships, and even your career choices.

The best ways to deal with a backseat parent.

You can’t thrive under the thumb of a parent who doesn’t see you for who you are. This doesn’t mean you have to cut your parent off, but it does mean that things have to change. You must discover the courage to be yourself, and set boundaries and limitations which help your new relationship to thrive.

1. Find the courage to be yourself

It’s hard to be yourself when it deviates from the expectations your parents set for you. We can feel a lot of gratitude for our parents. In the best of intentions, they work hard and sacrifice to provide what they can for us. Innocently, they build up dreams for us and delicate hopes that sometimes come from a place of ego than of understanding. We must find the courage to break with these expectations and stand up for the things we want in our own lives.

Find a space in which you can be alone and uninterrupted, so you can spend some time with your thoughts. On a daily or weekly basis, sit down, close your eyes, and center yourself on your thoughts. Envision the perfect life. What does it look like? Who’s in it? What career do you have? Where do you live?

Once you can envision the perfect life, envision that person who’s living it. Who do you want to be? What values are aligned to your inner truths? What people do you need to be surrounded by to feel comfortable in your skin? After building up a vivid picture of your authentic self and life, focus on rebuilding your self-confidence. You must believe in yourself and your right to be who you are. You must find the courage to be yourself — despite the pressures and expectations placed on you by parents.

2. Set more concrete boundaries

Boundaries are such a crucial cornerstone of every relationship we build with someone. They help us to protect ourselves from those who would push us around, but they also help to communicate expectations and needs. That’s why boundaries are so important when it comes to dealing with the backseat parent. Although their intentions may be good, we don’t need their roadmap. By setting boundaries, we reinforce our desire to lead our own lives and embrace our freedom.

Slowly ease into setting more boundaries with your parent. If you’ve never set boundaries with them before, it’s important to start small and work your way up. Perhaps you turn down a dinner, or a quick trip to the store that you might have made together. We all need our personal space, and we can make this clear by carving it out for ourselves.

Saying “no” is also a part of setting boundaries with a backseat parent. Once you’ve gotten used to giving yourself a little space, allow yourself to say “no” to them when they ask something you aren’t willing to give. Sit down and have an honest conversation with one another. Share where you’re coming from, and help them to see the person you are trying to become. We can appreciate our parents without allowing them to cross the line, or dictate our relationships and life decisions.

3. Cultivate a sense of independence

Independence is such an important part of becoming who we are. To be independent means being able to live and act in line with our deeper truths, and those experiences which provide us meaning. When we are unable to fully flex our independence, we become locked-up and stuck in the shadow of someone else’s happiness. Although the backseat parent might act with the best of the intentions, they remove this independence from their child.

For you to be happy, you need to stand on your own. While your parents did much for you — they are not entitled to your happiness. You need to be stable on your own terms, in a life that fits your needs. To do that, you’re going to have to support yourself in emotional terms, mental terms, and material terms too.

Cultivate a greater sense of independence for yourself. Venture out from the wing of your overprotective parent and do the things that bring you pride and contentment. Support yourself and stop looking for your parent to do it. If you want them to stop pushing you around, be for yourself and do for yourself. Don’t give them the power to interject in your life by giving them power over it through money, housing, emotional support — whatever it might be.

4. Focus on your happiness first

Many of us were brought up to believe that the happiness of our parents needed to take priority over our own. We are taught that we owe them for the sacrifices that they make, and that their lives are our responsibility (once we reach a certain age). While we certainly owe our parents respect and a helping hand, we don’t owe them our lives. The only person we can make happy is ourselves. We are not capable of making our parents happy or changing their lives for the better.

Focus on making yourself happy first and foremost, and focus on building your life — rather than trying to change the lives of your parents. Their choices are their own, just as your choices as your own. While they might have (wrongly) placed all their happiness expectations on you, you’re under no obligation to meet them.

True happiness and fulfillment are our responsibility alone. You have a finite amount of time and energy. If you spend it all chasing someone else’s definitions of success or joy, you’ll end up with nothing left to give yourself. Let go of the idea that you carry the weight of your caretaker’s happiness on your shoulder. We come into this world responsible for ourselves, and we are the only ones who have to answer to ourselves when it comes to the final finish line. Your parents won’t be here forever — but you must forever live with yourself.

5. Accept them, but don’t allow them

One of the most crucial steps in learning how to deal with a backseat parent is mastering the art of acceptance. Acceptance is a bit like calibration. It allows us to look around and take stock of where we’re at, and who we’re really surrounded by, so that we can then plan a journey of success that works for us. It’s figuring out where you are so you can pinpoint where you want to go. Setting boundaries and opening up your parent is one thing. You still have to accept them and then stop allowing them to take over.

Take a step back and see your parent or caretaker for who they really are. Stop forcing them into the box you want them to fit in. You have to take the rose-tinted glasses off so that you can both start to see one another for who you truly are. Accept their strengths and their weaknesses, too. Accept their shortcomings and all the things they got wrong.

Understand too that acceptance is not allowance. While you can see someone’s true colors, and share your own, that doesn’t mean they will accept or understand them themselves. You can accept a parent who doesn’t fit the life you’re building. You can accept that their relationship with you is damaged, or beyond repair. Every situation is unique. Only you know the best choices to make. Express your boundaries, stand strong, and communicate your needs. If they can’t accept that — accept them and move on in your truth.

Putting it all together…

Our parents bring us into the world helpless and small, and it’s hard for them to ever lose this perspective of us. To them, we are always in need of help and we are always in need of defense. The harder they cling to this illusion, the more likely they are to become backseat parents. Rather than allowing their meddling to destroy the relationship you share, you have to get proactive about setting boundaries and reshaping the way you both connect.

Start digging up the courage to be yourself. Figure out what you really want from this life, and figure out who you really want to be. Set some boundaries around those hopes and parts of self, then communicate those boundaries with your parent. Relationships change, and that includes the ones we share with our caretakers. Let them know what you need and let them know that they need to respect it. Cultivate a greater sense of independence for yourself and allow this to create space between you and your hovering parent. Backseat parents may have the best of intentions, but their continued meddling can cause serious damage. Focus on your own happiness and understand that you’re under no obligation to provide theirs for them. We’re all responsible for our own journeys. Accept who your parent is, but don’t allow them to take over your life.

LV Development

Self-awareness, relationships, and psychology.

E.B. Johnson, NLP-MP

Written by

Certified Life Coach | NLP-MP | Entrepreneur | I write about relationships, psychology, and the growth mindset. Founder @ Dragr LLC. 📱:

LV Development

Self, relationships and mental health. If you’re looking to make your life better, this is where you start.

E.B. Johnson, NLP-MP

Written by

Certified Life Coach | NLP-MP | Entrepreneur | I write about relationships, psychology, and the growth mindset. Founder @ Dragr LLC. 📱:

LV Development

Self, relationships and mental health. If you’re looking to make your life better, this is where you start.

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