Authoritarian Parenting: What It Is, And How To Tell If You're Doing It

How Authoritarian Parenting Really Affects Your Child, According To Experts

March 5, 2020 Updated July 26, 2021

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Scary Mommy and Tetra Images - Jessica Peterson/Getty

There’s no denying there are a zillion-and-one ways to be a parent. But the fundamental truth of being a parent is also that it’s hard AF a lot of the time. And beyond that, it’s terrifying — if you’re not always worried about their health or food allergies, you’re always worried you’re somehow going to ruin your kid. So, it’s natural (practically involuntary even) to seek out some sort of central thesis on raising tiny humans. If you’re trying to figure out your parenting style, well, say hello to Baumrind’s four parenting styles — authoritarian, authoritative, uninvolved, and permissive. Accepted by developmental psychologists as four of the most common parenting methods, they’ve been used to categorize parental relationships for decades. The authoritarian style, specifically, is the one we’ll be exploring more here.

What are the four types of parenting styles?

Baumrind refers to a developmental psychologist named Diana Baumrind who first laid out back in the 1960s what she perceived to be the universal parenting styles. Through her research at the University of California, Berkeley, she explored how people’s parenting approaches correlated with their children’s behavior. In doing so, she identified three distinct parenting styles: authoritative parenting, authoritarian parenting, and permissive or indulgent parenting. Neglectful or uninvolved parenting would later be added, bringing the generally recognized parenting styles to four.

What is authoritarian parenting?

According to Pamela Li, chief editor of ParentingForBrain.com and bestselling author of Turning Tantrums Into Triumphs, authoritarian parenting is characterized by high demands but low responsiveness. “Authoritarian parents are cold and aloof from the child’s emotional needs and require the children to meet high standards,” Li told Scary Mommy. You might think of this as “tough love” parenting, although some would argue that this style skews far more “tough” than loving. Authoritarian parents have a tendency to set arbitrary rules for their children without providing a reason for said rules, yet the children are expected to follow them. Autonomous thinking by children is not encouraged — in fact, authoritarian parents feel as though children shouldn’t make their own decisions.

What are examples of authoritarian parenting?

If you still have questions regarding what, exactly, authoritarian parenting involves, it can be helpful to have a few examples broken down by age group. But first, here’s some general insight on and examples of the parenting style.

“The best example is that authoritarian parents tend to ask children for blind obedience. They see themselves as the authorities and do not allow any questions about their decisions or demands,” explained Li. Putting it in terms many of us can relate to, she continued, “Their reason for those demands is usually, ‘Because I said so.'” So, an authoritarian parent will tell their child to do something without ever explaining why they want that thing done.

Authoritarian parents rule their households with fear, getting their children to follow their arbitrarily established rules by yelling, threatening, or in most severe examples, by using physical violence. Children in these homes don’t feel like they can voice an opinion for fear of punishment, and they never feel in control or autonomous.

And now, here are specific examples of authoritarian parenting, organized according to the age of the child:

Infant/Toddler

  • Enacting a strict set of rules for a child, even when they are very young and many of the “rules” are arbitrary and have no real benefit or reason
  • Using shaming to control children and modify their behavior — even in completely normal situations beyond a child’s control, like having an accident while potty training
  • Exploding in anger towards the child
  • Responding to a child’s rule-breaking (whether real or perceived) by yelling or shouting at them
  • Instilling the idea that children should be “seen and not heard” at a young age

Child

  • Parents don’t encourage verbal give-and-take
  • Using the withdrawal of love or other punishments to control a child
  • Having a strict set of rules, but not explaining the reasoning behind them
  • Always answering questions about rules with “because I said so”
  • Using harsh punishments for minor infractions of the rules
  • Parents justifying their behavior towards their child as being “tough love”
  • Parents deciding how their child acts and/or dresses
  • Discouraging kids from thinking or acting independently
  • A child’s attempts to communicate or reason with a parent is seen as “talking back”

Teen

  • Parents expecting their orders to be obeyed without question
  • Setting unattainable goals for the teen without providing them with the support they need to succeed
  • Having exceptionally high standards for the teen, without the flexibility of adjusting them as needed
  • Refusing to allow teens to make decisions for themselves — including what they do in their free time, their extracurricular activities, and who they socialize with
  • Parents never seeking or even allowing feedback from their teen

Does authoritarian parenting work?

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Well, what do you mean by work? Just because something produces the result you want in a given moment doesn’t mean it is an effectual practice in the broader sense of raising well-rounded children.

Jen Lumanlan has a multi-fold perspective on the subject. She’s the parent of a preschooler, and she boasts Master’s degrees in both psychology (child development) and education. Plus, she runs the Your Parenting Mojo podcast, which examines scientific research related to parenting and child development to create resources for parents.

When asked about the efficacy of authoritarian parenting, Lumanlan said, “Authoritarian parenting ‘works’ in that authoritarian parents tend to raise children who ‘tow the line’ and don’t ‘act out.’ But the child is most likely behaving in this way out of fear rather than because they have taken on their parent’s values as their own.”

What are the effects of authoritarian parenting on a child?

Of course, what we really all want to know about our parenting deep down is whether or not it’s going to screw up our kids. So, is there any validity to those fears for an authoritarian parent? Well, let’s just say if you’re self-aware enough to recognize that you or your partner are an authoritarian parent, you’re probably self-aware enough to realize you need to change — for the sake of your child.

“Children of authoritarian parents tend to be unhappy, less dependent, easily become hostile under pressure, and worse in school performance,” cautioned Li. “They are also more likely to develop an overly shy/fearful personality, poorer social skills, and mental disorders.”

The ramifications of this type of parenting tend to follow the child into adulthood as well, impacting the bonds they form as they grow up. Dr. Laura F. Dabney, a psychotherapist who is considered an expert in her field after 20 years of practice, shared a little insight on authoritarian parenting and a child’s ability to develop healthy relationships.

“This parenting style can cause children to have the wrong type of associations or links between obedience and love,” Dr. Dabney shared with Scary Mommy. “Unfortunately, the child can grow up to think that they will only be loved if they are obedient and follow other people’s demands at the expense of their own needs. While the child was growing up, they were never given the option to make choices. This could, and probably will, follow them into adulthood. This means that they will have a hard time making choices or trusting themselves. This may cause them to go into unhealthy relationships where they will be controlled, as that is what they believe to be the norm.”

Children of authoritative parents grow up to have:

  • Low confidence
  • Emotionally suppression
  • An immense amount of anger and resentment inside them
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Little respect for authority and rules
  • Trouble communicating their feelings and thoughts

Authoritative vs Authoritarian Parenting — What is the difference?

Don’t get these two parenting styles confused, says New York-based licensed clinical social work and psychotherapist Dmitri Oster — a preferred clinical provider for the Administration of Children Services who specializes in parental counseling. “There is a major distinction between these two separate styles of parenting, although the words appear closely related,” Oster shared.

“Authoritarian parenting is typically rooted in a rigid and inflexible mode of operating where a parent dictates certain rules and expectations of behavior, but without explaining the underlying rationale or importance of the rules,” said Oster. “This style of parenting is often experienced by a child as being fear-based and disconnected from an intelligible process of reasoning.”

Then there’s authoritative parenting, which Oster describes as a much-preferred approach to parenting, saying, “It invests the parent with authority and structure — which every child needs for healthy and safe development — by providing an opportunity for the parent to remain in control by setting rules and expectations of behavior with their children, while also explaining to a child the reasoning and rationale behind any rule.”

As you’ve likely deduced, authoritative seems to be the way to go. “The difference in parenting and communication makes a remarkable psychological impact as the child begins to understand that there is a logic and consistency in the rules they are expected to follow,” elaborated Oster. “It also has a beneficial impact on a child’s internal psychological world as the child begins to realize there is safety in the consistency and rationale of behavior.”

What does this difference look like in a real-life scenario?

To help visualize the difference in authoritarian and authoritative behavior, Oster uses an example that’ll undoubtedly resonate with you as realistic if you have children old enough to zone out in front of the TV. Or, you know, if you recall getting scolded by your own parents for doing so as a child. “An example of authoritarian parenting would be a parent telling their child, ‘Turn off the TV and do your homework now.’ There would not be any follow-up discussion as to the reasoning or meaning of such a demand with the child. The child would just be expected to comply without any regard to their own understanding of such a demand,” said Oster.

Using the same example, an authoritative parent would adopt a more measured tactic. “An authoritative parent could say to their child, ‘Let’s turn off the TV now, and focus on your homework,'” Oster described, saying that if a child asked for a reason, the parent might reply, “I would like to see you do well in school because it will help you get into that college you are very interested in.” Then, underscored Oster, it opens the door for more dialogue.

What should you do if one parent is authoritarian and the other is not?

When you bring two people together and those two people converge to create and then try to raise a tiny human, there’s always going to be a running possibility that conflicting opinions will occur. Like, on a daily basis. Sometimes, the differences are minor — say, whether or not Toaster Strudels are acceptable breakfast food. But sometimes the differences are on a more fundamental level, such as the style of parenting.

Elie Cohen, a clinical psychologist as well as a college professor and deputy chair at Touro College, says that the key to bridging any gaps is communication. “Parents’ own styles can be shaped by many factors including their own experience as a child. Many times, a couple will find that they have different expectations, values, and styles when it comes to parenting,” Cohen told Scary Mommy.

He continued, “Although they don’t have to be exactly the same, it is healthier for children to know they have a consistent, transparent culture in the home instead of having a good cop/bad cop situation where they learn they can pick and choose who to approach for what. This can be very important to talk about prior to having children, and then periodically as well to hash out differences and come up with an intentional plan, which may sometimes involve tweaking parent’s own personality styles somewhat.”

Cohen also suggests family therapy as a helpful tool in improving communication and “identifying ways to create the healthiest home environment possible!”

What should you do if you realize you’re an authoritarian parent?

There comes a point (scratch that, there come many points) in a parent’s journey when they have to face some tough truths about themselves. That’s the hope anyway, that you’ll be able to identify and address issues in your parenting methods before they cause any lasting damage. Because after all, the ultimate goal is to be the best parent you can be, right? Not perfect, because that doesn’t exist, but always striving to be the best you can in any given situation or set of circumstances.

So, let’s say you start to see shades of authoritarian parenting in yourself and, more pointedly, acknowledge that may not be the best thing for your brood. “If a parent thinks their parenting style falls into one of the less desirable categories, they need to take a painful, honest look within and become more self-aware,” said Dr. Fran Walfish — Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors, CBS TV and co-star on WEtv.

“Without deep self-examination and under stress, we tend to react the (unpleasant) ways that our parents did with us,” Walfish points out. But don’t worry; history isn’t doomed to repeat itself. “Consulting with a child development or parenting specialist or a therapist can be very useful because hearing their own voice speak the truth out loud make feelings a reality or bring the unconscious to our awareness. This frees you to have options and make better choices in your parenting.”