© 2010 – 2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
The authoritarian parenting style is about being opens in a new windowstrict and stern. It insists on unquestioning obedience, and enforces good behavior through psychological control — threats, shaming, and other punishments.
As defined by psychologists, it’s also a style associated with less parental warmth and responsiveness (Baumrind 1991).
That doesn’t bode well for children’s health outcomes, especially in stressful environments. As I note opens in a new windowelsewhere, warmth and responsiveness can protect kids from the effects of toxic stress.
But what about other outcomes? Like outcomes concerning behavior problems? Social Skills? Academic achievement?
If authoritarian parents are demanding, shouldn’t their children be better-behaved and more successful in the classroom?
Surprisingly, the evidence indicates otherwise. Here is an overview of the research.
Authoritarianism and the alternatives
Researchers recognize at least opens in a new windowthree alternatives to authoritarian parenting:
- opens in a new windowPermissive parents are emotionally warm, but reluctant to enforce rules or standards of conduct.
- Uninvolved parents are like permissive parents, but they lack warmth
- opens in a new windowAuthoritative parents, like authoritarian parents, set limits and enforce standards. But unlike authoritarian parents, authoritative parents are very responsive or nurturing.
In addition, authoritative parents encourage their kids to ask questions, and they explain the rationale behind the rules. Authoritative parents are also less likely to control kids through the induction of shame, guilt, or the withdrawal of love.
How does authoritarianism measure up?
Mounting evidence that heavy-handed tactics make kids worse
When kids have really difficult behavior problems, it might seem that the only remedy is severe disciple — to control children through threats, harsh punishments, or shaming. But research suggests these tactics don’t result in long-term behavioral improvements.
On the contrary, they seem to make things worse.
For instance, let’s consider what psychologists call “externalizing behavior problems” — disruptive, aggressive, defiant, or anti-social conduct. If authoritarian disciplinary tactics were effective, we would expect them to lead to fewer such behavior problems as children get older.
But that isn’t what we observe when we track children’s development.
In a meta-analysis of more than 1400 published studies, Martin Pinquart found that harsh control and psychological control were actually the biggest predictors of worsening behavior over time (Pinquart 2017). Kids subjected to these authoritarian tactics at one time point tended to develop more externalizing behavior problems at later time points.
We can’t assume it’s entirely due to authoritarian parenting. Maybe genetic factors are partly to blame. After all, we know that genetic factors can raise a child’s risk of developing certain kinds of behavior problems.
Such children may tend to provoke authoritarian responses from their caregivers. Parents see their children misbehaving, and they struggle to find a solution. They feel stressed and frustrated. They crack down with harsh discipline — threats and punishments — and show less warmth toward their misbehaving children.
It’s a scenario where behavior problems and authoritarian parenting are linked, but not necessarily because authoritarian parenting causes behavior problems. Instead, the kids themselves are part of the story. Their misbehavior triggers authoritarian responses.
So how do we find out what’s really going on?
When researchers try to tease apart causation, they’ve confirmed that children’s pre-existing behavior problems can indeed provoke authoritarian reactions from parents.
But there is also evidence that authoritarianism is harmful. It appears to make children’s behavior problems worse.
For example, in a behavioral genetics study of twins, Rebecca Waller and her colleagues focused on kids with “callous unemotional traits” — traits that like low empathy and poor moral self-regulation (Waller et al 2018).
These traits are linked with serious behavior problems, and Waller’s team confirmed that genes matter. Some kids were at higher genetic risk for developing “callous unemotional traits.”
But parenting style also had an effect. When parents showed children lots of warmth and affection, kids were less likely to develop callous unemotional traits. Even kids who were at high genetic risk showed fewer symptoms.
What about other types of misbehavior? Like adolescent substance abuse?
Once again, the evidence is troubling. Studies suggest that kids with authoritarian parents are more, not less likely to use and abuse alcohol (Glozah 2014; Calafat et al 2014).
Social skills and resourcefulness
How does authoritarian parenting affect the development of social skills?
In a variety of cultures around the world, children from authoritarian families tend to show lower social competence.
Studies of American adolescents have reported that teens with authoritarian parents were the least likely to feel socially accepted by their peers. They were also rated as less self-reliant (Lamborn et al 1991; Steinberg et al 1992; Steinberg et al 1994).
In addition, a study of U.S. college students found that students raised by authoritarian parents were more likely to engage in acts of bullying (Luk et al 2016).
In China, a study of 2nd graders in Beijing found that kids from authoritarian families were rated as less socially competent by their teachers. They were also more aggressive and less likely to be accepted by their peers (Chen et al 1997). Other Chinese research has linked the punitive aspects of authoritarianism with poorer social functioning (Zhou et al 2004).
In Cyprus, authoritarian parenting has been linked with bullying. When researchers questioned 231 young adolescents about their cultural values and experiences with peers, they found that kids from authoritarian homes were more likely to have experienced bullying — both as victims and perpetrators (Georgiou et al 2013).
In a study of Turkish high school students, kids from authoritarian families were rated as less resourceful than kids from authoritarian or permissive parents (Turkel and Tzer 2008).
South America and Spain
Researchers in Latin cultures report that authoritarian parents are more likely to have kids with low social competence (Martinez et al 2007; Garcia and Gracia 2009), and the effects may last into adulthood (e.g., Garcia et al 2020).
In addition, a Spanish study found links between authoritarian parenting and bullying. High school students with authoritarian parents were more likely to be involved in bullying, particularly if their parents attempted to control them through the use of punitive discipline (Gómez-Ortiz et al 2016).
In Dutch studies, kids with authoritarian parents were rated as less helpful and less popular by their teachers and classmates. They were also rated as less mature in their reasoning about moral issues (Dekovic and Jannsens 1992; Jannsens and Dekovic 1997).
Does authoritarian parenting put kids at greater risk of emotional problems? Maybe yes.
For example, in Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, adolescents from authoritarian homes report lower self-esteem compared with adolescents from authoritative or “indulgent” or permissive families (Martinez et al 2020; Queiroz et al 2020). Spanish adults report less happiness and life satisfaction if they were raised by strict, authoritarian parents (Garcia et al 2020).
Authoritarian parenting has been linked with greater childhood anxiety in Germany, and a higher risk of developing symptoms of depression in the United States and the Carribbean (Wolfradt et al 2003; King et al 2016; Lipps et al 2012)..
kids were more likely to suffer from mental health problems if they perceived their parents to be authoritarian (Huang et al 2019).
in a behavioral genetics study of Chinese twins, researchers found that kids with authoritarian fathers were more likely to suffer from a psychiatric disorder — even after accounting for the influence of genes (Yin et al 2016).
Other research in China suggests that children with harsh parents tend to have more trouble regulating their emotions (Chang 2003; Wang et al 2006). In a study conducted in Taiwan, kids were more likely to suffer from mental health problems if they perceived their parents to be authoritarian (Huang et al 2019).
Meanwhile, in the United States and the Caribbean, studies confirm that teenagers more likely to develop symptoms of depression if their parents take an authoritarian approach to child-rearing (King et al 2016; Lipps et al 2012).
And a behavioral genetics study suggests that authoritarian parenting puts kids at higher risk for experiencing major depression during adulthood (Long et al 2015).
In Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, adolescents from authoritarian homes report lower self-esteem compared with adolescents from authoritative or “indulgent” or permissive families (Martinez et al 2020; Queiroz et al 2020). Spanish adults report less happiness and life satisfaction if they were raised by strict, authoritarian parents (Garcia et al 2020).
But the authoritarian parenting style isn’t always linked with emotional problems.
Some studies of American adolescents have failed to find emotional differences between kids from authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive homes (Lamborn et al 1991; Steinberg et al 2006).
And research on adolescents in the Middle East has also failed to find a link between authoritarian care-giving and psychological problems like depression (Dwairy 2004; Dwairy and Menshar 2006).
Why the inconsistencies?
I suspect the effects of authoritarianism depend on how harsh, cold, or punitive the parent is.
For instance, some research suggests that corporal punishment is linked with higher rates of depression and anxiety among children.
It also seems likely that culture plays a role. If kids perceive authoritarianism as normal and mainstream, they may be less distressed by it (Dwairy 2004).
What about school?
Experimental research suggests that authoritarian approaches interfere with learning.
In a fascinating study of kindergartners, Melissa Kamins and Carol Dweck have shown that a common tactic of authoritarian care-giving — shaming a child for poor performance — opens in a new windowcan make kids perform more poorly on problem-solving tasks (Kamins and Dweck 1999).
Moreover, experiments suggest that people learn better from positive feedback than from negative feedback, and this may be especially true for kids (Schmittmann et al 2006; van Duijvenvoorde et al 2008).
Other studies report correlations between authoritarianism and lower school achievement.
For example, a study of adolescents in the San Francisco Bay Area found that the authoritarian parenting style was linked with lower school grades for all ethnic groups (Dornbusch et al 1987). These findings are supported by other, similar studies (Steinberg et al 1989; Steinberg et al 1992).
Counter evidence: Are the effects less harmful when parents are less educated? Or live in disadvantaged neighborhoods? Or Chinese?
Some studies of kids from lower socioeconomic groups have failed to show any difference in academic performances between authoritative and authoritarian families (Lamborn et al 1996; Steinberg et al 2009).
It’s even been suggested that kids with relatively less-educated parents do better in school when they are from authoritarian homes (Leung et al 1998).
There is also controversy about the effects of authoritarian care-giving in traditional Chinese families.
On the one hand, authoritarianism has been linked with poorer school performance in Beijing (Chen et al 1997) and Taiwan (Pong et al 2010).
On the other hand, studies of Hong Kong Chinese (Leung et al 1998) and of Chinese immigrants to North America (Chao 2001) have linked authoritarian parenting with higher school achievement.
Why the discrepancies?
Researchers have suggested several possibilities.
- Perhaps kids living in dangerous, disadvantaged neighborhoods are less likely to run afoul of authority figures—in and out of school—when they are taught unquestioning obedience.
- Maybe peer pressure swamps the effects of parenting. Some peer groups support school achievement. Others discourage it. One study of U.S. school students found that Asian Americans tended to have peer groups that encouraged scholarship, and they performed well at school even when their parents were authoritarian. African Americans tended to have peer groups that rejected good students. These kids did more poorly in school even when their parents were authoritative and highly-educated (Steinberg et al 1992).
- Authoritarian parenting may have different meanings in different cultures. Ruth Chao has argued that the Chinese version of authoritarian parenting is fundamentally different. Unlike Western authoritarian parents, Chinese authoritarian parents have closer relationships to their kids, and closeness is a predictor of higher school achievement (Chao 2001).
But I’m a bit skeptical about the idea that authoritarian parenting could make some kids into better students. The experimental research is compelling. Moreover, achievement in math, science, and many other academic fields depends on critical thinking—something that authoritarian parenting seems to discourage.
Indeed, there is evidence that schools run along authoritarian principles produce inferior students. In a study comparing American high schools, Lisa Pellerin found that authoritative schools got the best results. Authoritarian schools had the worst rates of dropouts (Pellerin 2004).
Authoritarian parents might see themselves as champions of morality. But, as noted above, studies suggest that kids with authoritarian parents are actually less advanced when it comes to self-regulation and moral reasoning (Dekovic and Jannsens 1992; Jannsens and Dekovic 1997; Karreman et al 2006; Piotrowski et al 2013).
Moreover, kids from authoritarian families may be more likely to “tune out” their parents as they get older.
For instance, when researchers tracked American middle and high school studies over 18 months, they found that kids who identified their parents as more authoritarian were more likely to reject their parents as legitimate authority figures. They were also more likely to engage in delinquency over time (Trinker et al 2012).
And in a study of American undergraduates, researchers asked students who they consulted when they had to make moral decisions. Undergraduates with authoritative parents were the most likely to say they would talk with their parents.
Students with authoritarian parents–like students from permissive families–were more likely to reference their peers (Bednar et al 2003).
For more information about the four basic parenting styles, check out opens in a new window“Parenting styles: A guide for the science-minded.”
For a more information about the ways that researchers define and identify authoritarian parents, see opens in a new window“The authoritarian parenting style: Definitions, research, and cultural differences.”
And if you’re interested in Chinese child-rearing, see my article, opens in a new window “Traditional Chinese parenting: What research says about Chinese kids and why they succeed.”
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Content last modified 6/2017