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Growing up, I had a friend whose parents were extremely rigid about what she wore, ate, and did for fun. If she dared to rebel against their restrictions, they’d lock her in an unlit storage room for hours. While this may count as child abuse in certain cultures, back then, this was merely “strict parenting” born out of a popular idea that parents know what’s best for their kids. While the Western narrative frames the “Tiger Mom” style of parenting as draconian, for many, hyper-disciplining parenting and laser-like focus on achievement and performance is the standard.
“As a trauma-informed therapist, I have come across many cases where people who grow up with strict parents tend to have distorted beliefs, anxiety or are very self-critical,” psychologist and trauma expert Seema Hingorrany told VICE. Hingorrany explained that one’s upbringing has a direct impact on how they view the world. “Parents may sometimes feel they’re doing a good job by inculcating discipline, but in most cases the child either matures too early or does things only to keep their parents happy instead of discovering what they want as individuals. They may take life too seriously, constantly doubt themselves, and even experience burnout and chronic fatigue syndrome.” So, how did people who thought they were brought up by really, really strict parents navigate their lives as kids and teens? And how does this continue to affect them as adults? We asked them.
I was brought up by a conservative father in a small town in north Bengal, India. Growing up, I was never allowed to go on school trips or to my friends’ houses even for birthday parties. I wasn’t given an allowance, so I had to always justify anything I wanted to buy to my dad. I was also not given a cell phone, which most of my friends had by ninth grade. My internet access was controlled by my dad, who put a password and time limit so I could only use it for educational purposes. I think the worst part about growing up like this is that it made me a compulsive liar because I felt like the truth wouldn’t do anything for me. I remember in the 11th grade, I begged a friend to lend me his spare phone so I could talk to my boyfriend, which my dad had no idea about. I’d hide the phone in my sanitary pads so my dad wouldn’t find it, and secretly talk to my boyfriend from the bathroom. If my dad heard me, I would tell him I was talking to myself.
“I hid a secret phone in my sanitary pads.”
I also got into smoking and drinking at a very young age as an act of rebellion. Since I was only allowed to go to school and not hang around anywhere after, I started bunking my classes and would go to an amusement park or on drives or go drinking. When I moved away from home for college, I finally had the freedom to do what I wanted and it made me spiral out of control. I began doing things that caused harm to both my physical and mental health. I even dated a guy who didn’t treat me well. I think psychologically, it has had a huge impact on me. I have a tendency of going completely wild when I find myself without supervision, and tend to lie about small things even when it isn’t necessary. I also developed social anxiety because I was never allowed to hang out with friends as a child. As I grow older, I’m working on these things, but it did make my relationship with my father very complicated, and I still don’t feel comfortable sharing things with him today. – Debadhrita, 23, student
I come from a conservative right-wing family, and wasn’t allowed to have any male friends growing up. Even today, my parents have a strict curfew and expect me to be home before sundown. If I try to question my parents or ask for permission to go out, they go ballistic and start taunting me. So, I’ve found ways to work around it. If I want to go on a date or hook up with someone, I make up elaborate stories of how I have to go to a work meeting. I lived with my parents during my undergrad years, but luckily, my college was an hour and a half away. So whenever I wanted to go to a party, I would tell them that I had a reporting assignment and had to work late so they would allow me to stay on campus. Things got especially suffocating during the COVID-19 lockdown, when I had no choice but to stay at home. If I’d ask to go out, they would accuse me of being an anti-vaxxer or believing COVID was a hoax. One way I’ve learnt to give it back to them is by also using extreme or trigger words, like saying, “I’m not a terrorist, so don’t interrogate me.”
“I say I have a work meeting to go on dates.”
My parents are hyper protective, and it’s made me question authority in a lot of ways. My therapist pointed out that, as a result of my upbringing, I don’t like being told what to do, and have a tendency to do the opposite of what I’m asked. I constantly feel like I’m living a double life, especially since I’m a queer person living in a Hindu nationalist household. It also takes me a while to open up in relationships and makes me question someone’s intent if they’re into me. I’ve developed this relationship of being fake with my parents, and it hurts because I feel like they won’t be able to love the real version of me. Even when I have a depression relapse, or if I’m stressed because of college, I don’t feel like I can tell them because it only makes it worse. I’ve had to train myself to constantly be on guard. – JK, 23, student
My parents separated when I was in seventh grade, and I lived with my mother after that. She always had super strict rules, and I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere except for school and coaching classes. I couldn’t even watch TV and play video games because she thought it was a waste of time. One day, I got off half an hour early from my coaching class and decided to go to a friend's house to play on his video game console. I came home and my mother asked where I’d gone after my classes. I was confused about how she knew, until I realised she was tracking the number of kilometres the car had travelled. If I was caught breaking any rule, she would shout at me, and sometimes even whack me. When this stopped making a difference, she switched tactics to chopping off my hair because she knew I cared a lot about it.
“My mother would chop off my hair if she caught me breaking rules.”
I’ve been rebelling since the 10th grade, when I refused to study science or pursue medicine even when that’s what my mother wanted. She was not OK with me moving out of our house, but had no choice once I became financially independent. Growing up with a strict parent has made our relationship very superficial, and made me seek emotional companionship from friends, even the ones I shouldn’t be trusting. I feel like I’m always looking for some kind of closure or comfort that I couldn’t get from my mother. – SD, 24, marketing professional
The major restriction I had growing up was that night-outs were never allowed, no matter how near the place was. So, when I wanted to go out at night, I had to sneak out. I did this by parking my car right under a streetlight that extended up to my terrace. I would climb down the light, jump onto the car’s hood and then drive away. I did this every second day, but eventually, my housing society’s security guard complained to my older sister. After that, I would still sneak out the same way, but instead of immediately driving off, my friend and I would push my car to the gate of the society and then drive it so that the guard would not be alerted to our mischief. I feel like living with these restrictions definitely irritated me many times, but ultimately it also helped keep me slightly in control, and gave me a lot of memories that I wouldn’t have had if I had total freedom. I also made it a point to score well in school and college, and I think that helped make my parents feel like I knew what I was doing and that they could trust me. – Chandni, 32, assistant professor
“I would climb down a street light from my terrace to sneak out.”
Right from my childhood, my parents have always put this pressure on me to be the perfect son, and there was never any room for me to make mistakes. I remember I was always hiding things, from bad experiences to report cards, because I was scared of being scolded or hit by them. They didn’t even like me going to friends' houses to hang out. In the beginning, I was more obedient but now, I’m more of a rule breaker. I still feel the need to lie or be vague about the specifics if I have to go out. I started drinking in junior college with my friends, but because my parents were from a religious background, I always felt guilty about doing it. Even today, there’s a constant sense of self-doubt and guilt when I do things I feel my parents wouldn’t agree with, even when it’s about my career or life choices. I still feel like I’m not allowed to make mistakes, which puts a lot of pressure on me because if I fail at anything, they will simply say, “We told you so,” instead of letting me learn from my mistakes. Even though I’m still figuring out myself and who I want to be, I feel like they expect me to have full clarity, which creates this uncomfortable tension between us. – Usman, 27, content writerFollow Shamani on Instagram and Twitter.