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Authoritarian vs. Authoritative Parenting Styles and Why It Matters

July 13, 2016

Teen Treatment Center Director of Family Services

This post was written by Teen Treatment Center's Director of Family Services, Kari Bouldin, MA, LMFT.

Over the past 50 years, family and child development experts have identified four different parenting styles. As parents, we don’t always fall strictly into one category, and we develop our own style as our children develop. The two most common styles are authoritarian and authoritative. I encourage you to take a look at the differences and outcomes between these two, and consider where you may need to add some flexibility to your parenting style. 

Authoritarian parents tend to view children as willful, disobedient, strong-willed, defiant, self-indulgent and rebellious. The goal is to bend the will of the child to authority, often times through coercion. Authoritarian has a focus on negative behaviors with punishments and consequences that are often harsh. Many times, expectations are too high and there are too many rules. This makes it difficult for the child to understand and follow and for the adults to remember as well. The household is not viewed as a democracy; little to no explanation is given regarding how things work or why rules are in place. Obedience and rigid following are often expected. Frequently, the needs of the child go unmet out of the constant need for rule compliance. 

Authoritative parents can view children as curious, questioning, and expect negative behaviors as part of learning and development. The goal is to persuade, explain, teach, and guide children while remaining in a position of power. Authoritative has a focus on rewarding positive behaviors in order to gain more positive behaviors. There is a balance between the needs of the child with the responsibility to conform the child to the needs and wants of others. Children are spoken to respectfully and the same is expected in kind. There are fewer rules set, they are made clear and consistently enforced. Questioning of rules is welcome and viewed as a natural curiosity to figure out how and why things work the way they do in the household and in the world. Rules are viewed as guidance. 

Both parenting styles produce well-behaved, high-achieving children; however, the long term effects are quite different.

Children from authoritarian households later in life can experience depression, perfectionistic thinking, anxiety, and lower self-esteem. They may struggle with understanding their own emotions and verbalizing their needs. Affection and communication wears away and reduces emotional connection between parents and children. 

Children from authoritative households tend to demonstrate an ability to emotionally regulate, engage in flexible thinking, and model social competence. Affection, communication, and emotional connection remain intact and strong between parents and children. 

The key difference? Authoritative parents work with their children to achieve goals and expectations. Authoritarian parents become angry and punish when a child falls short.

Ask yourself, "What is my parenting style?" Many times this is dictated to us through our nationality, cultural, and personal upbringing. If you are noticing more and more negative behaviors, power struggles, and pushing away, consider adding some flexibility into your parenting style. When you hear from your children you don’t understand, listen to, or “get” them, they’re trying to tell you a need isn’t being met.

If you need assistance in understanding how to add more flexibility, talk with your family therapist while your child is in treatment, or seek guidance from a family therapist in your area. As parents, we’re all doing the best we can, and we can all do better and try new things. What a positive way to model change for your children by trying new ways of being with them.

Teen Treatment Center’s current and alumni parents are encouraged to learn more about this topic at our upcoming Family Support Group. This event will be held on Wednesday, August 3rd at 5:30 pm EDT. For more information about our upcoming events including the links to join, please email your Family Therapist.

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