- Authoritarian parents set strict rules, expect obedience, and punish kids when they don’t obey.
- Kids with authoritarian parents often struggle with problem solving and emotion regulation.
- As an alternative, experts say authoritative parenting is better for kids’ mental health and overall family well-being.
While there’s no single right way to raise a child or be a good parent, evidence does suggest some parenting styles are better than others. And one particular style — authoritarian parenting — may do more harm than good.
Authoritarian parenting takes a “tough love” approach. In a nutshell, parents demand obedience from children with little discussion or flexibility. They have high expectations for their kids’ behavior, but they typically don’t offer much in the way of warmth and connection. Often, they may not acknowledge their kids’ experiences and emotions, either.
Parents may feel drawn to this approach for a number of reasons, including their own experiences growing up or their cultural backgrounds. But child development experts say this parenting style can negatively affect kids by lowering their self-esteem and raising their risk of mental health issues over time.
Read on to learn more about authoritarian parenting and why most experts are against this approach.
Authoritarian parenting examples
Authoritarian parents consider themselves to be the “boss” of the family and generally insist kids obey without question, according to Robyn Rausch, a licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist at Calming Communities.
So, they might respond to a child’s questions with phrases like, “because I said so” or “because I am the adult and you are the child,” Rausch says.
There’s no room for negotiation — instead, they expect children to follow their rules promptly.
Parents who use this approach also set strict rules and rely on punishment to enforce those rules, says Ellie Borden, a registered psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, and clinical director at Mind By Design, a private therapy practice.
Examples of authoritarian parenting include:
- A parent punishes a child for lying by taking away their favorite toy or not letting them play with friends.
- A parent responds with anger when a child breaks a rule, like playing video games before finishing their homework. The parent might lash out by yelling, banning the child from video games for an extended period of time, or getting rid of the video game console altogether.
What’s the impact?
Authoritarian parenting may seem to positively shape a child’s behavior in the short term, but it can backfire in the long run, Rausch says.
Authoritarian parenting focuses on control, not constructive criticism. So a child may learn to fear their parents and punishment — but they’re left clueless for how to behave better.
And that can be a problem because it can lead to lying and sneaking around behind your back to avoid getting caught. In fact, research shows children of authoritarian parents consider lying a way to preserve their self-interest and avoid conflicts.
Evidence suggests children of authoritarian parents often have more difficulty:
To sum up, authoritarian parenting is bad for your child on multiple levels. Some negative effects of this style include:
- Lower life satisfaction: Research found participants with authoritarian parents reported lower levels of life satisfaction than those with authoritative parents.
- Challenges with mental health: According to one study exploring depression in teenagers, those with authoritarian parents were more likely to have symptoms of depression than those with authoritative parents.
- Higher levels of aggression: A review found children of authoritarian parents were more likely to show aggressive behavior than children of authoritative parents — likely because this style of parenting involves anger and punishment, which children then adopt and don’t learn better strategies to regulate their emotions, Borden says.
- Lower self-esteem: A review found that authoritarian parenting has a negative effect on kids’ self-esteem — perhaps because this style makes it difficult for them to express themselves freely without fear of criticism or judgment. Children of authoritarian parents may also come to believe their opinions and contributions don’t matter.
- Increased risk of substance use: Evidence suggests adolescents with authoritarian and neglectful parents are more likely to use tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs than adolescents with authoritative or permissive parents.
Why do parents use this style?
Parents may be drawn to an authoritarian style of parenting for a number of reasons, including:
- Their own upbringing: Parents raised in an authoritarian household may not have examples of other ways to parent, so they raise their kids similarly.
- Lack of awareness of the potential damage: Most parents raise their children in the best way they know and sincerely desire the best for them, Borden says. So, many parents who employ an authoritarian parenting style may not be consciously aware of how much harm it can do to a child’s development and mental health.
- Cultural factors: In some countries with more collectivist cultures than the US, like China, authoritarian parenting is the norm, Borden says. A collectivist culture emphasizes the needs of the group and prioritizes strong community ties and obedience to authority figures.
- Socioeconomic status: Parents of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to adopt an authoritarian approach — perhaps, in part, because they have less access to resources to learn about different styles of parenting.
- The hope of protecting their kids: Some parents adopt this style in an attempt to better prepare their kids for future hardships, Borden says. For example, some Black parents may use an authoritarian style because they think a focus on obedience may help their kids survive in the face of discrimination.
It’s important to note that in some cases, authoritarian parenting does offer some benefits. For example, strict adherence to rules about not playing outside alone can protect kids who live in unsafe neighborhoods.
Other parenting styles
In addition to authoritarian, experts recognize three other parenting styles:
- Authoritative: This style also places high expectations on kids, but authoritative parents offer more warmth and flexibility. They take a collaborative approach to parenting and encourage their kids to ask questions.
- Permissive: This style also prioritizes warmth and connection, but permissive parents set very few boundaries or rules for kids.
- Neglectful or uninvolved: Parents who use this style take care of their kids’ basic needs — like providing food, clothing, and shelter — but they don’t offer much emotional support or communication.
What experts recommend
Given the wealth of research showing the negative outcomes for kids of authoritarian parents, most experts caution against using this approach.
Instead, child development experts recommend authoritative parenting, which encourages natural consequences over punishment and explanation of rules instead of unquestioning obedience.
In a nutshell, authoritative parents consider their children’s needs and input and work with them to solve problems.
Changing your parenting style can be hard, Rausch says, and it often takes time and practice.
But these tips can help you move away from authoritarian practices and adopt a more authoritative approach:
- Identify your parenting style: If you aren’t sure where to start, a family therapist or professional counselor can offer guidance in understanding your current parenting style and its potential impact on your kids, Borden says.
- Seek out information and support. Reading books on authoritative parenting, like No Drama Discipline or Brain Body Parenting, can help you learn more about parenting tactics. Connecting with authoritative parenting — aka gentle parenting — groups on social media can also help you find a supportive community made up of other parents.
- Work on your personal development: This can involve seeking out tools for emotional regulation or working with a therapist to address any unresolved trauma from your own childhood. “If you feel you’re not being the best version of yourself in how you’re parenting or presenting to your children, seek the help of a professional,” Borden says.
Authoritarian parenting demands obedience from children with little discussion or flexibility. This type of parenting places high expectations on kids’ behavior, sets strict rules, and relies on punishment to enforce those rules.
This style of parenting can have several negative effects on kids: It can damage self-esteem, raise their chances of developing mental health concerns, and have a lifelong impact on quality of life.
There’s no denying that changing your parenting style can be challenging, but a family therapist or professional counselor can help you explore tactics that do more to support your child’s development and emotional health.