Is Your Parenting Style Too Harsh for Your Teen?
With mental illness on the rise amongst adolescents, it can be hard for parents to not be anxious or worried about their children. But when this worry leads to overprotection and harshness, certain teen parenting styles may actually cause the mental health concerns they are trying to avoid.
In this article, we will discuss two commonly described styles of parenting - authoritarian parenting and authoritative or structured parenting. We will then review research on each of these styles and hear from experts regarding the best ways to balance parenting practices to support mental health in children and teens.
Before we begin, it is important to note that parenting styles-and children's’ perceptions of these parenting styles-vary greatly from culture to culture. The information provided below is meant to serve as a general guideline and not an arbitrator of which parents are “good” or “bad.” Each family and culture has unique needs and challenges. At the end of this blog post, we will share information about Charlie Health’s family therapy and family/caregiver support groups, which are services that are personalized to meet the unique needs of your family.
Responsiveness and Demandingness Explained
In this article, the terms responsiveness and demandingness will be used to describe an authoritarian parent and an authoritative parent.
The authoritarian parenting style will be described first. It is characterized by low responsiveness and high demandingness.
The authoritarian parenting style will be described next. This parenting varies from authoritarian parenting in that it is characterized by high responsiveness and high demandingness.
What do these phrases mean?
Responsiveness is a term used to describe parental warmth and support. Parents who are responsive to their children are sensitive to their needs and offer acceptance, support, and love to their children and teens.
Demandingness involves parental monitoring, consistent discipline, and a willingness to confront a teenager who disobeys.
Through intentional engagement with your teen, the goal is to express both responsiveness and demandingness. As we will see below, each of these parental qualities has a significant impact on the mental health of a child or adolescent.
Authoritarian parenting is characterized by high levels of “demandingness” and low levels of “responsiveness.” What does this mean in the day-to-day though?
- Teens are expected to follow all rules without discussion or explanation.
- Teens are punished if rules are not followed. (Sometimes phrased as, “Do as I say, not as I do.”)
- Open communication between children and parents is not allowed or encouraged. (Think, “Children are to be seen and not heard.)
- There is very little compromise between children and guardians.
- The giving or expression of love is conditional upon obedience.
As a result of authoritarian parenting, children during development often become:
- Dependent on their parents
- Have difficulty making decisions on their own
- Less socially aware
- Insecure or lacking confidence
- Less intellectually curious
- More hostile, resentful, or angry
- Increasingly rebellious
Authoritarian Parenting is Associated with Childhood Depression
One study reviewed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Out of the 17,399 American teenagers ages 12-17 who completed surveys at home for the study, researchers found that adolescents who experienced authoritarian parenting practices were more likely to also report depressive symptoms. This was in contrast to their peers who reported experiencing authoritative parenting, which is a different and healthier style of parenting will be described below. While age and gender were included in this study, it is important to note that race or ethnicity were not.
Although the study cannot say for sure whether authoritarian parenting causes depression, it reinforces other research studies that states that parental warmth is linked to lower rates of depression and anxiety in youth.
Why do parents choose authoritarian parenting?
Although there appear to be many disadvantages to authoritarian parenting, there can be some advantages.
- Protection: Authoritarian parenting may play a crucial and protective role for a young person growing up in unsafe or low-income environments. Stricter parenting may keep children safe.
- Cultural Differences: In many cultures, authoritative parenting, characterized as high in demandingness and low in responsiveness, authoritarian parenting is the norm and may have advantages. In the Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood and Development, researchers specifically point to the African American and Asian communities, stating that children of these cultures may view authoritarian parenting as a sign of love, affection, or dedication.
- Positive Traits: Children of authoritarian parents may develop some desirable traits including self-control and diligence. They also score higher in school and have lower school deviance measures.
Authoritative or Structured Parenting
An opposing style of parenting we will describe has been shown to lead to healthier and happier children in most studies. It is called “authoritative parenting” - not to be confused with the similarly named parenting style authoritarian parenting discussed above.
In contrast to authoritarian parents, authoritative parents are good communicators and role models. They show high responsiveness but high demandingness. Parents who fall into this style of parenting do the following, particularly during child development:
- Have appropriate expectations of their children by creating clear and consistent age-appropriate rules and boundaries. They do not let children get away with bad or problem behavior.
- Teach children how to manage failure or frustration starting from an early age.
- Cultivate meaningful and frequent communication leading to a good relationship with their child. They listen to their children and have a warm and open stance.
- Encourage independence and allow children to work out problems by themselves if they are able.
Children of authoritative parents are most likely to:
- Have closer relationships with their parents
- Be successful
- Be more resilient
- Be more responsible, self-regulated, and cooperative
- Manage aggression appropriately
- Have higher self-esteem
- Be happier
Studies show that children of authoritative parents lead to better mental health outcomes.
One publication reviewed and summarized previous studies relating parenting styles and mental health outcomes. The studies reviewed involved many cultures as well as both mothers and fathers.
The authors were able to report many outcomes, three summarized below.
- Authoritarian parenting is associated with a reduced risk for drug or alcohol use.
- Authoritarian parenting at least by one parent can be a protective factor against adolescent depression.
- Parental caring and warmth have a negative relationship to teen suicidal ideation and self harm.
Expressing Care Through Emotional Coaching
One of the most effective ways parents can adopt a healthier parenting style, such as the authoritative parenting style described above, is to tune into their child’s feelings and help their child cope with stressors and negative feelings.
This can be done through emotional coaching. Emotional coaching is a way to guide children’s feelings and their behaviors. It often involves the following:
Awareness of your child’s emotional state
By paying close attention to your child’s mood, body language, and actions inside and outside of the home, you can start to identify and be aware of their emotional state. Furthermore, by being in touch with and appropriately regulating your own emotions-and even sharing them when appropriate-you can help your child learn about emotions in general.
Using emotions as a way to form connection
When your child is experiencing strong emotions, feel free to use this as a time to connect with and teach your child about emotions. Encourage your child to talk about what they are feeling, tell your child that their feelings are ok, and share that feeling with them.
Listening empathetically and without judgment
Listening without judgment and supporting your child’s feelings is a good way for your child to feel validated and heard. No emotion is too small or unimportant to discuss and take seriously. Try reflecting what your child is saying back to them. For example by saying something like “It sounds like you are feeling upset because ...”
Helping your child understand their emotions
When children can name emotions, they can better handle them. To help your child better name their emotions, start describing emotions early on, work really hard to parse out what emotion or emotions your child is feeling, do not criticize the emotion, and listen so that your child feels they are being taken seriously.
Discussing healthy solutions together
Expressing emotion positively is an important lesson for all children and adolescents to learn. Parents can help explicitly guide their children on brainstorming what they can do to help solve problems.
Building Structure Through Clear Expectations
In addition to empathetic listening, setting clear expectations is an important part of healthy parenting.
Karen Stephens, director of the Illinois State University Child Care Center, shared the following tips in an article she wrote on setting expectations:
- Be specific about expectations. Focus on what your child is allowed to do and be clear about things they cannot.
- Offer choices if choices are available. If not, move forward without negotiation.
- Educate your child on the function of an item. For example “Knives are used by parents to cut food. They cannot be used by you.”
- Explain reasons behind expectations. For example “I want you home at this time because I don’t want you to drive when it’s dark outside.”
- Share your feelings respectfully and listen to your child’s feelings without judgment.
Setting appropriate expectations and boundaries is a difficult and ever-evolving task that takes practice. At Charlie Health, we have many tools to help support you and your teen.
Teaching Failure the Right Way
Even parents who are warm, disciplined, and close to their children cannot protect their children from failure. Teaching children to handle failure or frustration in a resilient way is a key quality of healthy parenting.
Guiding children through failure may involve:
- At a young age, giving children age appropriate tasks to help them learn through trial and error.
- Using the emotional coaching tools above to guide children through the emotions they experience when they fail
- Creating an environment where children will not be judged or shamed for failing.
- Asking your child what they learned from making a mistake and brainstorming together how to change behavior in the future
- Sharing experiences of failure and having a positive attitude toward it as the parent
A major positive of a parent’s positive attitude toward failure? It leads to more optimistic children.
A child’s intelligence mindset (their beliefs about whether intelligence and talent as being fixed or malleable) has a huge impact on that child’s motivation to learn and try hard. And this mindset is directly impacted by a parent’s belief about failure being either enhancing or debilitating.
One study demonstrated that parents who themselves have a positive attitude toward failure have children who are more likely to believe that intelligence can grow with hard work instead of staying fixed.
The study also discovered the following:
- Children can accurately predict what kinds of beliefs their parents hold regarding failure. They can tell whether their parents believe failure is debilitating versus a chance for growth.
- Parents who held the belief that failure is bad were more likely to react to their child’s failure with concern about the child’s ability rather than support for the child’s learning and potential improvement
- Parents who held the belief that failure is bad had children who believed that intelligence is likely to be fixed, meaning it cannot change or grow.
Parenting Support Available at Charlie Health
In addition to many individual therapy tools, Charlie Health offers over two dozen virtual group programs for parents, teens, partners and more. A few that may be helpful for parents to cultivate mindful and non-violent communication styles, including emotional coaching, include the following:
Mindfulness Communication for Families
Throughout the day we are constantly communicating with ourselves and others (consciously, subconsciously or on autopilot). This series will be a mix of information sharing, practice, and discussion about how we can foster more compassionate, deliberate, and Link effective communication.
“Let’s Have a Meeting” Family Meeting
Experimental group for parents or caregivers to learn skills to facilitate more successful family meetings at home.
TLC for Parents
TLC for Parents is a 10 week, ongoing, support group that promotes both skills and self-care strategies. The self-care portion will focus on strategies from “The Depression Cure,” by Steven Ilardi. The skills portion will focus on de-escalation tactics, avoiding power link struggles, and engaging in productive and healthy conflict when necessary.