Authoritarian parenting: What happens to the kids?
Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas
© 2010-2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
The authoritarian parenting style is about being strict and stern. It insists on unquestioning obedience, and enforces good behavior through 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 a child's health outcomes, especially if she's growing up in an otherwise stressful environment. As I note in this article, studies suggest that responsiveness and warmth can protect kids from the effects of toxic stress.
But what about other things -- like behavior problems? Social Skills? Emotional well-being? Academic achievement?
If authoritarian parents are demanding, doesn't that at least suggest they'd produce kids who are 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 three alternatives to authoritarian parenting:
are emotionally warm, but reluctant to enforce rules or standards of conduct.
• Uninvolved parents are like permissive parents, but they lack warmth
like authoritarian parents, set limits and enforce standards. But
unlike authoritarian parents, authoritative parents are very responsive
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?
evidence that heavy-handed tactics make kids worse
When kids misbehave, it might seem tempting to enforce good behavior through threats, harsh punishments, and other
forms of psychological control. But research suggests these tactics don't result in long-term behavioral improvements.
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 work, we should 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 recent 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 problems over time
Kids subjected to these authoritarian tactics at one
time point tended to develop more externalizing behavior problems at later time points.
What about other types of misbehavior? Like adolescent alcohol use? Once again, the most current evidence suggests 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
Kids from authoritarian families are less resourceful, less socially-adept, and more likely to become involved in bullying.
This generalization appears to apply across a variety of cultures.
Kids from authoritarian families may find it more difficult to fend for
themselves and make friends. And they are at higher risk for involvement in bullying -- both as perpetrators and as victims.
The United States
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 recent 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).
One 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).
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). 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
Does authoritarian parenting put kids at greater risk of anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression?
For example, 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 authoritarian parenting puts children at higher risk for depression if they have trouble with self-control (Muhtadie et al 2013). And kids with harsh parents tend to have more trouble regulating their emotions (Chang 2003; Wang et al
Links between authoritarianism and emotional problems have also been found in the United States. Behavioral genetics research suggests that authoritarian parenting contributes to the risk of major depression later in life (Long et al 2015).
In addition, U.S. studies indicate that adolescents and adults are more likely to suffer depressive symptoms if they characterize their parents as having used authoritarian practices in the past (King et al 2016; Rothrauff et al 2009). Children are more likely to develop symptoms if their mothers embrace authoritarian child-rearing tactics (Calzada et al 2015).
And research in other societies paints a similar picture:
- In Caribbean countries, kids raised by authoritarian parents are more likely to suffer from depression than kids raised by authoritative parents (Lipps et al 2012).
- Studies of Spanish and Brazilian adolescents have reported that
teens from authoritarian homes had lower self-esteem than did teens
from authoritative or permissive families (Martinez and Garcia 2007;
Martinez and Garcia 2008).
- German researchers found that teens with authoritarian parents
were more likely to suffer from trait anxiety. They were also more
likely to experience depersonalization--the feeling of watching oneself
act without being in control of one's actions (Wolfradt et al 2003).
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
And research on adolescents in the Middle East has also failed
to find a link between authoritarian caregiving 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 kindergarteners, Melissa Kamins and
Carol Dweck have shown that a common tactic of authoritarian
caregiving--shaming a child for poor performance--can 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
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
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
"Parenting styles: A guide for the science-minded."
For a more information about the ways that researchers define and identify authoritarian parents, see
"The authoritarian parenting style: Definitions, research, and cultural differences."
And if you're interested in Chinese child-rearing, see my article, Traditional Chinese parenting: What research says about Chinese kids and why they succeed
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Content last modified 6/2017