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:
Permissive parents are emotionally warm, but reluctant to enforce rules or standards of conduct.
Uninvolved parents are like permissive parents, but they lack warmth.
Authoritative parents, like authoritarian parents, set limits and enforce standards. But unlike authoritarian parents, authoritative parents are very responsive or nurturing.
How does authoritarianism measure up?
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.
Mounting 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. 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 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 1,400 published studies, Martin Pinquart found that harsh control and psychological control were actually the biggest predictors of worsening behavior problems 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.
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 .
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).
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 2006.(
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 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).
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.