It is a stereotype that, in therapy, all of a person’s problems will be blamed on their parents. That is not the case. But decades of psychological research have suggested that the approach to parenting generally followed by an individual’s mother and/or father can influence the way they approach relationships, challenges, and opportunities. That doesn’t mean that an adult can’t change, of course, especially once they understand what may be influencing their behavior. And parents who become aware of the pitfalls of their own style and how it may affect their kids can also change.
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On This Page
- What are the four major parenting styles?
- How can a parent’s style predict a child’s future relationships?
- How can mothers and fathers tell what their parenting style is?
- How can parents become more authoritative?
- What is supportive parenting?
- What is attachment parenting?
- How can mothers and fathers transition away from attachment parenting?
Research begun by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind in the 1960s identified three main parenting styles—authoritarian, indulgent, and authoritative. Later studies added a fourth—neglectful. Every parent does not neatly fit into one of these four categories but they describe the approaches of many.
- An authoritarian parent seeks to maintain a high level of control over their children. They may set and adhere to a strict set of rules, and are more likely to support and take part in corporal punishment such as spanking. Children of highly authoritarian parents may struggle socially and may be likely to become authoritarian parents themselves.
- Neglectful parents (also known as uninvolved or disengaged) take on a limited parenting role. They may not spend as much time as other parents in conversation, play, or other activities, and may not bother to set many house rules. Some children of neglectful parents may resist rules outside of the home and struggle with self-control.
- Indulgent (or permissive) parents may be attentive and warm, but may not set many rules for their children. They may prioritize being their child’s friend over being their parent. Research suggests that the children of permissive parents may show higher levels of creativity but may also feel entitled, and be more interested in taking rather than giving in their own relationships.
- Authoritative parents follow what is widely understood as the preferred approach. Such parents are more pragmatic and flexible. They set clear boundaries but also encourage children’s independence within those limits. Discipline in such families may be more supportive than punitive, and as children get older, their independence increases. Children of authoritative parents may have more highly developed self-control and self-reliance.
Recent research suggests that, in some families, a parent’s style, especially as it relates to maintaining control over their children, could leave their kids vulnerable to emotional abuse from future partners, employers, and and others. Researchers found that people raised with a parent who maintained strict psychological control over them grew to be especially vulnerable to emotionally abusive partners. The effect appeared to be offset, though, by experiencing emotional warmth from the other parent. Research continues to explore the effect of differing parenting styles in the same family, and whether it matters if a mother or father is the authoritarian.
Much research of parenting styles has examined how the styles affect children as they grow up, and how negative effects could be tempered. But other studies have focused on helping parents become more self-aware and change their styles to develop healthier relationships with their kids. Some researchers have developed analytical scales in which parents indicate how they would respond to certain scenarios with an eye toward helping them shift, perhaps through therapy, to a more moderate approach.
In practical terms, most parents do not think of themselves as authoritarian, authoritative, or otherwise, and many mothers and fathers are self-aware enough to know that they may not be consistent with their kids at all times. Experts suggest that attention to some general guidelines can help parents develop a healthier style—for example, being consciously warm and loving toward children, setting age-appropriate limits, actively listening to children’s concerns, gently but firmly asking to be treated with respect, and “catching” kids being good, while making sure they know they’ve been seen and acknowledged.
Supportive parenting describes an approach to authoritative parenting in which mothers and fathers are conscious of how often they say no to children (as they often must, especially when kids are young) so that they can seek more opportunities to say yes to them in encouraging ways that help kids develop confidence and self-esteem. When children are mostly told what they cannot do, they can feel rejected by a parent, even a well-meaning one, with potentially negative emotional outcomes. Being consciously supportive and selfless with children can help them internalize belief in themselves.
Attachment parenting, a term coined by pediatrician William Sears, describes an approach to parenting in which mothers and fathers are physically and emotionally close to their children, especially at an early age, and is characterized in practice by extended periods of breastfeeding and co-sleeping. Sears referred to it as “what mothers and fathers would do instinctively if they were raising their baby on a desert island.” There is little evidence, however, that this approach leads to more positive psychological outcomes for children and many experts reject attachment parenting as unnecessarily demanding of parents and potentially creating conflict and division between new parents.
Parents who commit themselves to attachment parenting and have the time and temperament to maintain the approach throughout early childhood may then be faced with the challenge of weaning their children from the approach. These mothers and fathers may need to consciously practice “detachment parenting” so that children entering early adolescence can develop independence and healthy friendships, while resisting feeling rejected themselves as kids begin to resist a parent’s efforts to hold onto their previous level of connection.