Breaking the hold of controlling parents Publishing: The son of perfectionist father Al Neuharth takes on a subject he knows firsthand.

October 25, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

It is the morning of your first college interview. You are 16 years old and nervous. Dad walks into the room for a little chat.

Without so much as a "Good luck, son," he proceeds to find fault with how you tied your tie, how long you took in the shower, how quickly you ate. By the time you arrive at the interview, you are a wreck.

So how do you react to that kind of performance? You could:

A. Forget about the whole thing.

B. Wait until Dad retires to Florida and then never call.

C. Use it as the basis for a book.

If you are the son of legendary newspaperman Allen H. Neuharth, the creator of "USA Today" and confessed SOB, you wait 25 years and then whip out your trusty personal computer and start typing.

The result is Dan Neuharth's "If You Had Controlling Parents - How to Make Peace With Your Past and Take Your Place in the World." It is an often chilling insight into just how destructive a parent can be.

Neuharth, 44, is a family therapist in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Augmenting the author's "Father Knows Best" - or-else - experiences are interviews with 40 people who considered their parents controlling.

"I got interested in this topic because I lived it," says Neuharth. "But this is not my story. I decided to do the book because I saw so many clients struggling with problems in their current life that related to controlling parents."

What is a controlling parent? Neuharth defines them broadly. They can be smothering, depriving, perfectionistic, chaotic, cult-like, using, abusing or childlike. They all have this in common: a habit of exercising unhealthy parental control that results in lasting problems for their offspring.

Take, for instance, the mother who insists her 6-year-old daughter wear a "Please Do Not Feed Me" sign on her back when she leaves the house. That experience was an adult eating disorder in the making.

Then there's the father who accidentally kissed his 14-year-old daughter on the lips, became horrified and ran up the steps shouting, "Watch out for your sexuality," leaving his daughter in tears. Another dad wrote this delightful missive on every gift to his children, "I hope you realize just how lucky you are to get this."

Neuharth admits that lumping all these varied cases of toxic parents together and calling them "controlling" isn't exactly good science, but he believes people can relate to that label.

"There's something about the issue of control. It seemed to me control is an entree to get at these issues," he says.

"For better or worse," he adds, "this is pop psychology."

Neuharth's remedy is for the controlled kids to distance themselves from their parents' injurious behavior, bring "balance" to their adult relationship with their parents and redefine their own lives.

Sometimes it requires confrontation with the parent, but often it does not. One of his recommended exercises: Pretend to be on "Oprah." "Your parents may be controlling as ever," he writes, "but you stick to the truth - and are applauded for it."

Another recommendation is to observe your parents with a more critical eye. During a two-day visit home, Neuharth mentally counted each time his father said something controlling. He lost track when it reached the dozens.

"I was nearly 40, and my father's control, as pervasive as it was, was infinitely milder than it had been when I was a child," he writes. "Yet I still found myself hesitating and wondering what I had done wrong."

Neuharth hypothesizes that there may be 15 million people who grew up with controlling parents in the United States - about 140,000 in the Baltimore area - or roughly one in 13 people. Raising awareness of the problem can be helpful if people "realize that they're not alone," he says.

"People should know this does happen to a lot of people, and it's better to tell the truth about it than deny it," he says.

If you think the author's revelations about growing up in the Neuharth household embarrassed his celebrity father, then you don't know Al Neuharth. A shrinking violet he is not. His own autobiography, "Confessions of an SOB," covered much of the same material - with extensive quotes from children and ex-wives.

Speaking from his home in Florida, the 74-year-old former Gannett Co. chairman said he is proud of his son's work and hopes the book helps others. He said he even willingly accepts his son's description of him as a perfectionist.

"I hope I was a perfectionist parent," Neuharth says. "I think some of that wore off on him."

But the elder Neuharth said he has also grown a bit tired of members of the baby boomer generation who blame all their bTC miseries on their parents.

"He's not alone in that. We've seen some brilliant and effective members of that generation put the blame for their problems on others," he says. "They ought to evaluate what parents did for them as well as to them."

Meanwhile, Dan Neuharth says he and his father have agreed to disagree about family life. He said he is no whiner, but believes everyone should take stock of their past if it's causing problems for their present.

"I think every child at one point or other thinks their parents were controlling, but I'm not talking about them," he says. "I'm talking about people who are affected by this who are hurt very deeply. But if they can recognize those wounds from the past, they can do a lot to heal them."

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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