3 Parenting Styles and How Each Approach Impacts Development

Mother and father walking on beach holding daughter’s hands.

When it comes to making parenting decisions, we all have our guiding philosophies. Some of us follow the examples set in our own upbringing—raising our kids as we were raised—while others are aiming to do things differently, perhaps trying to avoid the mistakes we feel our parents made. In any case, most of us are doing our best to raise kids who are happy, healthy, productive members of society.  

While there’s no one right way to raise children, there is good evidence that certain styles of parenting can be more or less effective, and have different impacts on children’s behavior, health, and emotional intelligence.

Here we’ll take a look at three common parenting styles and see what research says about their impact on adolescent development.

3 Common Parenting Styles

Permissive (Indulgent)

As you might have guessed, the permissive parent is indulgent and passive in their parenting. This style of parenting is characterized by a reluctance to say no or set limits because of a belief that the best way of showing love is to give in to a child’s wishes—permissive parents are warm but undemanding.

If you parent in this style, you may find yourself agreeing to almost everything your child wants, whether it’s more toys, unhealthy foods, more screen time, or an extended bedtime. For example, permissive parents may allow their children to have a snack right before dinner because their child is hungry and whining instead of having them wait 10 more minutes. This style can also manifest in letting your child’s interests or desires dictate your family’s plans for evenings or weekends.

Many parents gravitate to this style of parenting because, honestly, in the moment, it seems the easiest. Some days it seems like everything has the potential to be a battle, and who can fault the parent who just wants to preserve her sanity and her relationship with her kids. In this way, the permissive style does have its advantages.  

Some of us may also be (consciously or not) responding to what we consider the overly restrictive style of our parents. Many of us aim to right the wrongs of our own upbringing in our parenting choices, and that can be especially true for those of us who chafed under the rules of authoritarian parents.

But while kids may seem to prefer a pushover parent, this style can have unintended consequences for kids as they grow up and move into adolescence and adulthood. More on that in a moment.

Authoritarian (Disciplinarian)

On the other end of the spectrum lies the authoritarian parent. Authoritarian parents display little warmth and can be very demanding. This style is characterized by restriction and punitive discipline.

If you parent in this style, you may believe that it’s important for your child to understand who is in charge and to adhere to the rules you set, without question. You may refuse to engage in any discussion or negotiation around rules, preferring instead to invoke your authority, e.g. “because I said so,” or “because I’m the parent and you’re the kid.” For example, your child may not want to go to a birthday party because they feel like they don’t fit in, but you make them go anyway without trying to understand why your child may be apprehensive about going or give them suggestions to help their situation.

Authoritarian parents may find this style appealing because it is always clear who is in charge. This style removes ambiguity around making decisions in situations where parent and child disagree.

Parents who adopt this style may also be responding in some way to their own upbringing. Maybe your parents raised you in this style, and you think it accounts for your success and accomplishments as an adult. Or perhaps your parents were neglectful, uninvolved, or overly permissive, and you believe that clear rules and standards are evidence of your careful attention to your parental role.

Authoritative

Although “authoritative” sounds very similar to the “authoritarian” style we just looked at, they are actually quite different. Authoritative parents are warm without being pushovers. They encourage independence and take into account their child’s wishes, while still retaining control and boundaries. This style of parenting values nuance and considers both “sides” in decision making when parent and child desire conflict.

Authoritative parents value a balanced approach when it comes to child rearing, understanding that a strict vs permissive approach to parenting depends on the situation. While many of us may intuitively appreciate this balanced approach it can take more time and thought in the moment to employ it in our day-to-day parenting decisions.

Where the previously discussed approaches can allow for quicker parental decisions, an authoritative style requires us to be present and attentive and to engage our kids in (age appropriate) discussions about how and why we set the limits we do. For example, when a child gets bad grades at school, the authoritative parent may take their child’s electronics away for a period of time, but also explain why it’s important to do well in school and praise their progress.

How Parenting Style Impacts Child and Adolescent Development

Perhaps unsurprisingly, developmental psychologists agree that the authoritative style of parenting is optimal for kids and adolescents. The atmosphere created by a balance between affection and parental control provides the best opportunities for healthy development, and kids raised in this environment shows more self-reliance and healthy autonomy than kids raised by parents using either permissive or authoritarian styles. Specifically, the benefits of this style include less antisocial behavior, depression and anxiety, and more self-esteem and achievement in adolescence.

Studies show that children of permissive parents learn that there are very few boundaries and rules and that consequences are not likely to be very serious. As a result, they may have difficulty with self-control and demonstrate egocentric tendencies that can interfere with proper development of peer relationships. They may also have trouble in school when they need to adhere to the rules of their teacher and the guidelines in the classroom.

Children of authoritarian parents learn that following parental rules and adherence to strict discipline is valued over independent behavior. Without any room for compromise, they may become rebellious as they get older. Others who are more submissive may become dependent on their parents.

How To Identify Your Parenting Style

Of course, all of us can likely point to ways in which our style of parental decision making varies depending on the situation. Internal factors, like mood or lack of sleep, or external factors, like job or relationship stress, may influence the way we parent on any given day.

However, research supports the idea that overall most of us fall into one of these three general categories of parenting styles and that children clearly benefit from having at least one parent who employs an authoritative style. If this is not currently your parenting style (or even if you’d just like to know more about how to strike the balance essential to the authoritative style) you might consider reading more about how parenting style affects children as they develop.

In cases where style differs between parents, ideally, you and your spouse (or co-parent) should discuss acceptable and unacceptable parameters for both your child’s behavior and your own parenting decisions. For example, if your child breaks a rule, both parents might agree on a consequence that they are willing to enforce together, even if their individual parenting style might handle it differently. In the case of differing parenting styles, parents should aim for consistency in setting and enforcing rules on specific behaviors.

There is also, of course, the issue of nature vs. nurture. As much as our parenting does affect outcomes for our kids, it is not the only factor. Child behavior also influences parenting style—a child with a cooperative disposition may cause parents to take an authoritative approach quite naturally; a more challenging child may elicit an authoritarian response from parents as they try to manage undesirable behavior.

As many parents with more than one child can confirm, children have their own personalities which exist independent of the influences of our parenting. In any case, a consideration of the characteristics and outcomes of the three styles outlined here can help us to consider our decisions in context and be deliberate in our parenting choices.

About the author: Hayley Nivelle is the Founder & CEO of ellie, the new app for parenting groups. Originally from Kansas City, she lives in the NYC area with her husband and two boys. She has relied on her moms groups for everything from breastfeeding tips to dealing with the fun and challenges of a two year old!

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