Control Your Controlling Behavior! Family Recovery …

controlling behavior puppet


When most of us think of controlling behaviors or people who are controlling, we think of people who bully others. Folks who yell commands, behave in an overbearing manner or are just plain rude. We think of the obvious behaviors that catch our attention. In this article we focus on controlling behaviors that are more subtle and do not stand out. 


Some Controlling Behaviors may not be easily identified …

One of the overly utilized and ineffective defense mechanisms of the loved ones of people with substance use disorders (SUDs), is attempting to control another person.  We understand that people who love those with SUDs are concerned for that person’s well being. And they are fearful of loss of relationship to that person due to their disease.


It can feel threatening and frightening to be emotionally attached to a person with the chronic, progressive brain disease of addiction.  Nothing is certain with them when they are using. Except the certainty of some sort of problematic event.


Controlling behaviors play a big role in families battling addictive disease. Responding to people and situations with controlling behaviors can be destructive to your loved one’s lasting sobriety and recovery. Here’s the cold, hard truth. Controlling another person’s behavior is impossible to achieve. We can only influence people’s behavior.


Control of Controlling Behavior!

Let’s look at what some of the experts in the field of addiction treatment have to say about attempting to control someone with an addictive disease.


You can help your loved one, but you can’t control his (or her) thinking or behavior. Robin Barnett, author of Addict in the House


Many codependents try to control events and people through helplessness, guilt, coercion, threats, advise-giving, manipulation or domination.Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More


When you try to control, what you are powerless over, you lose control over what you can manage.” Gorski & Miller, authors of Staying Sober


controlling behavior puppet


Family Member Recovery

Loved ones of people with SUDs must engage in their own recovery. Recovery from attempting to control.


So, in your recovery plan for yourselves, evaluating your controlling behaviors is essential. It is essential to obtaining a sense of serenity for yourself. It also reduces the likelihood of contributing to a loved one’s relapse.


Searching for your own controlling behavior …

As you begin to search for your possible controlling behaviors to target in your recovery plan, keep in mind that you come from a family that has experienced addiction or other forms of dysfunction. Because of this, you are likely someone with a strong urge to control things. If you have trouble owning and/or expressing your feelings or opinions, you may be more focused on controlling other people’s behaviors. 


If you are highly anxious about the safety and consequences of your loved one’s behaviors, you may be more prone to controlling behaviors. And if you have been with an actively addicted loved one for many years, you may have a tendency to attempt to control their addictive behaviors. 


Also, if you engage in any of the following behaviors, you are trying to control your loved one with a SUD.

  • Often starting comments to your loved one with the word “You” and then likely making a statement of blame.
  • Refusing to feel your feelings, being silent about your concerns and wants.
  • Lecturing, pouting, complaining, arguing or waiting for attention.
  • Judging or criticizing your loved one’s use of time.
  • Demanding disclosure of events or situations.
  • Acting as though your loved one is guilty, until proven innocent.
  • Using guilt as a tool on your loved one.


controlling behaviors puppets

Finding Serenity ….

Many family members and friends have tried the above tactics unsuccessfully to control someone they loved. Now enter that great phrase from the “Serenity Prayer”:


…accept the things I can not change.., the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.


In her book Addict in the House, Robin Barnette recommends an exercise to apply the “Serenity Prayer” to decision making, as it relates to loved ones with SUDs.


Take a blank piece of paper and divide it into 3 columns. 1 column is for the person, situation, or event. 1 column is titled “I can control” and the other column is titled, “I can’t control”. Start by taking the elements of your situation apart by placing them in the column where they belong. You will begin to identify that there really is a difference between elements you can control and elements you do not control. And you will begin to see that you have choices in the areas that are in your control.


As a person works this exercise a few times over, they will begin to feel the prayer in action in their life. Being able to identify what we can control and what is not in our control gives us wisdom in our choices. Engaging in this activity can provide sensations of clarity and feelings of relief and hope for family members.


At Sanford’s  Family program we give family members a Resource List. The list contains recommended books, videos and DVD’s that provide solid, factual information and support to the whole family. Robin Barnett’s book, Addict in the House, is on that list.  We recommend you pick it up and give it a read!



Caroline (Carli) Parmelee-Noffsinger has 20 years clinical experience including: primary therapist and case manager for residential, IOP and outpatient therapy. Carli’s primary role at Sanford House is facilitating the Family Program. She is currently updating and revising the program design and content and hopes to improve upon an already successful approach to family intervention. In her free time, Carli spends time with her horse. She has been a horse lover and owner for most of her life and has facilitated equine therapy sessions. She says, “The back of a horse is good for the inside of a person.” You can reach Carli with questions about The Sanford House Family Program at