Authoritarian Parenting: Its Impact, Causes, and Indications

Thomas was a young child who began his life with curiosity and a sense of awe about everything new, from his surroundings to discovering himself—his likes, dislikes, emotions, and, above all, his unique self.

Unfortunately, with and without full awareness, his parents seemed to do everything they could to challenge, if not squash, his spirit. They did little to support his emotional and cognitive well-being. They set rules and structure with seemingly little interest in his thoughts or feelings. From telling him how to feel, think, or behave, they did little to encourage the joy in his creative energy, including his openness to questioning and experimenting.

They were not available to be fully present with him to help him feel genuinely heard. They were not there to respond in ways that encouraged his self-reflection or brainstorming, essential for problem-solving. As such, they provided little direction for modeling critical thinking.

For a variety of factors, due to their own emotional difficulties, financial stress, relational conflicts, and how they were parented, they simply were not available to provide the parenting essential for healthy emotional and cognitive development. They were excellent parents in providing food, clothing, and shelter, but this does not fully make up for their lack of emotional presence. Consequently, Thomas experienced great emotional pain, including a sense of isolation from others and himself.

Unfortunately, too many of us have grown up under this parenting style, an authoritarian approach toward parenting. This was first described in the 1960s by Diana Baumrind, who also identified authoritative and permissive parenting styles. Additionally, the neglectful style was identified in the 80s (Maccoby and Martin, 1983).

By contrast to the authoritarian style, authoritative parenting aims to provide a balance between structure and independence. It may have strict standards for a child’s behavior, but is also emotionally supportive and entails caring interaction that fosters healthy bonding and trust. Such parents allow children to make mistakes without judgment and are not intrusive. It is considered the most beneficial parenting style, as it encourages flourishing.

Parents practicing a permissive parenting style let children do what they want and provide no structure. They often act like a peer or friend to their child.

The neglectful parenting style reflects parents who minimally respond to their children’s needs and make few demands of their children. They are often indifferent, dismissive, or completely neglectful.

Source: Alamy Stock Photo/Volodymyr Melnyk
Parents scolding a child.
Source: Alamy Stock Photo/Volodymyr Melnyk

Consequences of authoritarian parenting

When the four parenting styles are compared, both permissive and neglectful parenting yield a high level of child aggression. However, authoritarian parenting shows the highest correlation with child aggression (Muhammad, Rathi, Baroi, et. al. 2022). Additionally, when such parents engage in derisive parenting—behaviors that demean or belittle—adolescents are more likely to exhibit adolescent dysregulated anger, which contributes to increases in bullying as well as victimization (Dickson, Laursen, Valdes, et. al., 2019).

When comparing authoritative versus authoritarian parenting, children of parents with greater negative demanding evidence may have lower emotional intelligence (Rekha, 2020). Deficits in emotional intelligence can then lead children to be prone to impulsiveness, anger, and aggression.

Authoritarian parenting has been found to have a high correlation with juvenile delinquent behavior (Amran, M. and Basri, N., 2020). Authoritarian parenting prioritizes a high level of control to make children listen to them. This can leave children conflicted, less communicative, and less trustful. One study of 1,320 adults found that authoritarian parenting styles worsened later mental health including symptomatic problems and risk to self and others, life functioning, and psychological well-being (Uji, Sakamoto, Adachi, et. al., 2014).

THE BASICS

Authoritarian parenting is also associated with symptoms of depression (King, Vidourek, & Merianos, 2016). I’ve observed throughout my years as a clinician that the tendency toward anger often serves as a distraction from such depression.

A meta-study of 51 studies from eight countries found that children of authoritarian parents were verbally and physically more aggressive than those of authoritative parents (Sunita, Sing, and Sihag, 2022). Further, their behavior was linked with low emotion and strong control. Additionally, aggression, anxiety, depression, and problem behaviors in children were all correlated with parent’s high levels of control.

Contributions to authoritarian parenting

There have been numerous studies performed over the years to identify factors associated with authoritarian parenting as well as how these factors might impact children.

Attribution of hostile intent

Parents who report being authoritarian in their approach are more likely to attribute more hostile intent to the child, feel negative affect, and engage in more harsh parenting practices such as yelling and hitting (Crouch, Irwin, Milner, et. al., 2017). Additionally, it appears that higher childhood punishment, associated with trait anger, has a significantly higher effect on parenting than authoritarian in orientation (Milburn, Niwa & Patterson, 2013).

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Difficulties with emotional regulation

Authoritarian parenting has also been associated with parents who have difficulties with emotional regulation. One study of 218 mother-adolescent dyads found a strong association between maternal emotional dysregulation and authoritarian parenting style and adolescent emotional dysregulation (Shaw and Starr, 2019). This association was stronger with higher levels of family stress.

Externalization

According to a meta-analysis of 17 articles, the authoritarian parenting style is most closely associated with externalizing problems (Ruiz-Hernandez, Moral-Zafra, Llor-Esteban, et. al, 2019). This makes sense, as children of such parents are routinely responding to external forces and rarely experience themselves as having free agency.

Socio-economic level

A recent study found that economically disadvantaged parents were more likely than more advantaged parents to use harsher and more authoritarian parenting strategies (Schneider and Fontaine, 2022).

Having authoritarian parents

One study found that children of authoritarian parents were more likely to practice authoritarian parenting (Valentino, Nuttall, Comas, et. al., 2012). Additionally, another study found that children who endured such parenting were also more likely to engage in child abuse.

Being less agreeable

Authoritarian parents appear to be less agreeable (Huver, Otten, De Vries, et. al., 2010). As such, they tend to be less empathic and more hostile and are prone to have more conflicts with others, including their children.

Implications

Parents who engage in authoritarian parenting need to know that they can learn to practice more authoritative parenting. Fortunately for Thomas, his parents realized how their authoritative parenting style had impacted him. By adhering to the following guidelines, they were helped to gradually embrace a more authoritative parenting style.

  1. Gain awareness regarding authoritative parenting and how it can impact children emotionally and cognitively. Become aware of any challenges you may have when being authoritative (i.e., lack of familiarity, triggering of your own childhood issues, fears of experiencing less control, etc.).
  2. Learn skills to promote being present with your children—listening skills, empathy, validating feelings, and helping them to recognize their feelings. (This can be challenging if you’ve not taken the time to listen to, empathize with, and validate your own feelings.)
  3. Identify household rules. These need to be clearly stated and discussed with children so they understand them. Posting them can help serve as a visual reminder for everyone.
  4. Practice the use of logical consequences consistent with authoritative parenting. This entails identifying consequences that are clearly defined, reasonable, and consistent. Remember that while corporal punishment may be an impulsive way to respond, it ultimately undermines a child’s trust and experienced connection.
  5. Engage in parent education. You may choose to learn about authoritative parenting through books, online information, or by attending a class. Talking with a family therapist can also provide excellent feedback regarding strategies and skills for more constructive interactions in your family.

As with learning any new behavior, this takes time, practice, and patience. However, embracing these guidelines can help ensure that your child flourishes rather than experience the pain endured by Thomas.