Authoritarian parenting: If you wonder if your parents were just strict or abusive, you aren't alone
Children of authoritarian parents struggle with poor self-esteem, depression, and loneliness. Authoritarian parents are unlike authoritative parents. They lack empathy and are unresponsive to the child's needs
Authoritarian parenting is characterized by high demands and low responsiveness. These parents have very high expectations of their children, which they often demand without reason or explanation, yet provide very little support or nurturance. Mistakes are never forgiven and often punished harshly. They never give feedback that can guide the child, but when they do share feedback, it is criticizing and negative. The parent/parents engage in yelling, name-calling, and corporal punishment in the name of disciplining the child.
Authoritarian vs authoritative
In the 1960s, the focus of psychological studies shifted to how early childhood experiences influenced the personality of the individual. Around this time, a developmental psychologist, Diana Baumrind, described three styles of parenting based on her research with pre-school kids: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive.
Authoritarian parents feel a severe need to control their children and often lack self-awareness or compassion. As a parent, their sense of control is "obedience and status-oriented" and they expect their orders to be obeyed without explanation. Much like a commander shooting out orders in a boot camp. There is no dialogue, conversation, empathy, or understanding.
These folks use punishment rather than discipline, but they cannot explain the reasoning behind their strict rules.
On the other hand, authoritative parents also establish rules and guidelines that their children are expected to follow. However, this style is much more democratic and emotionally nurturing.
Authoritative parents are responsive to their children's emotional needs and developmental requirements and are willing to listen to questions, opinions, feelings, and problems. These parents, too, expect their kids to excel, but they provide the support, warmth, feedback, and guidance needed. When children fail to meet their expectations, these parents are more nurturing and forgiving rather than punishing.
Here are 8 common traits of authoritarian parents and the effect these have on their children.
1. They are extremely demanding, but they're not responsive to the child's needs
They have many rules and tend to micromanage every aspect of their children's lives. They don't offer reasons or explanations for the rules they set. Any questioning is met with punishment which often involves verbal abuse: "How can you be so ungrateful? You are so stupid, I don't want to waste my time explaining."
Effects on children: Children often feel like they are walking on eggshells, never sure when their action or words will trigger their constantly angry parent/parents. After a point, they internalize the rules and feel confused between what they know is healthy and right for them and what their parents have forced them to believe is right for them. For e.g. A child knows that she is good enough to qualify for the basketball team. But her mother would have told her she should focus on knitting and learning to act like a lady.
After a few years, the child will naturally begin to lose touch with her strengths and go with what pacifies the parent. Pick knitting even though she hates it. Pick a partner even though she knows the relationship is unhealthy for her. Pick a job that demands a lot from her but doesn't meet her need to express her talent/creativity. Basically, sign up for life situations that repeat her unhappy childhood experiences.
2. They barely express any warmth or nurturing
Parents with this style seem aloof, distant, cold, and tough. They might admonish the child with harsh words, nag or yell, but they almost never give a genuine compliment, praise, or appreciation. They believe in "children should be seen and not heard."
Effect on children: The child grows up feeling lonely despite being surrounded by her/his family. The words of criticism hit the child hard and her natural confidence and self-worth is eroded by the constant stream of negative feedback (You will never grow up to do anything worthwhile; can you never do anything right the first time? I can't believe you're my child; you don't seem to have the Smith's genes).
The biggest prize the child of an authoritarian parent pays is the loss of self-acceptance and self-esteem. It often takes years of therapy and active healing to let go of the negative messages and replace them with true, honest statements about themselves that are based on facts. (From "I cannot do anything right" to "I am talented, smart and capable of doing anything I set my mind to.")
3. Authoritarian parents use punishment little or no explanation
Parents with this style resort to corporal punishment, which often involves spanking, with no remorse or empathy. They lie to themselves and the child that this is needed for the sake of disciplining the child and refuse to see it as a form of abuse. The children have very little guidance on what they can do to avoid punishment, yet the parent shifts the responsibility of their violent behavior to the child: "Look what you made me do. Do you always have to make me pick up the belt?"
Effects on the child: The consequences of physical abuse are detrimental to the child's mental, emotional, and physical health. These children grow up with a constant fear and have their defenses up day in and out. Their antennae are up, their words measures, their body stiff from holding much tension and fear, their movements slow and calculated, there is no sign of the natural flow of energy and free movement and carefree spirit that is common in childhood. They grow up with severe trust issues and find it hard to relax. They are three times more prone to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and a host of other mental and physical illnesses.
4. They don't give children choices or engage in two-way communication
These parents live by the "my way or the highway" approach to discipline. They don't give their kids options to pick from, neither do they want to know what their children think. There is little room for negotiation and they believe that their children are incapable of making their own choices.
Effects on the child: The child grows up believing she/he has no say in determining her/his own life. They lose their voice to stand up for themselves and question their ability to decide what is right for them. As adults, they second their decisions and lack personal boundaries. They often tend to say "yes" when they want to say "no" and believe their needs, preferences, desire, choices don't deserve any attention. In relationships, they find it hard to hold their ground and end up feeling resentful and unhappy because they almost always give up their personal happiness for others.
5. They are inconsistent with their instructions and have intolerant of anything that questions their control
Authoritarian parents expect their children to "know better." They might say: "Don't you know you have to take care of your sister?" on one day and "Who do you think you are? Did I ask you to take your sister for breakfast?" They lack the patience to explain why their children should avoid certain behaviors, yet put the entire burden of figuring out the right behavior onto the young child.
Effects on the child: The child often feels confused and extremely cautious because almost anything can trigger the parent to react or punish. This inconsistent behavior is a strategy that such parents use to intentionally confuse the child to the point the child doesn't feel certain or confident to do anything by him/herself. The child also learns to accept orders and suggestions without questioning, a trait that is extremely frustrating and unhelpful in adulthood.
6. Authoritarian parents lack empathy and emotional connection
Parents with this style lack basic empathy. They cannot comprehend that their child has her/his own emotional needs, developmental urges, mental and physical requirements that require understanding and patience. They often deny or discount any emotion the child displays. "Stop crying. You are so sensitive." "How dare you speak back? Do you want to know what will happen if you throw around your attitude?" "Don't just sit there with a gloomy face. Why can't you be happy and normal like other kids?"
Effects on the child: The child learns to bottle up his emotions and begins to believe that expressing emotions is dangerous. An even more detrimental consequence is if the child internalizes the parent's words and begins to discount or deny her own feelings. "I must be too silly and sensitive like mom says. I'm never going to cry in front of people again." Or, "It's safer to never feel angry/sad/happy." These children numb their emotions and shut themselves out completely. This comes up later when their partner criticizes them for being emotionally insensitive. Only those people who are open to their own emotions are capable of feeling others emotions.
7. They believe they know better or are superior and are not willing to negotiate
Authoritarian parents falsely believe that being older makes them more superior than children who come with their own wisdom and intelligence. They cannot comprehend that young children have the right to do what they want in order to grow to become the best version of themselves. Such parents don't believe in gray areas. Everything is black or white, and they never do their share to understand their child's inner world. Even older kids don't get a say in decisions that impact their lives. ("You are not going to that university. You'll go to the same one your brother went to. I don't want to hear about it anymore.")
Effects on children: Children grow up with a lot of resentment and anger, both of which are valid and natural. They lack emotional intimacy with their parents and often grow up believing in dichotomy: Either I will be happy or others. It's impossible for me and the other to happy with the same decision. They also set themselves for struggle throughout their life. Because nothing they did ever made their parent/parents happy, they will work hard, constantly set unrealistic expectations, and feel they can never be good enough for themselves or others.
8. They instill shame in their children to force them to comply
The worst legacy they pass on to the children is shame. Shame is an extremely harmful, self-eroding and complex emotion. Authoritarian parents are highly critical and judgemental. Studies reveal that individuals who lack self-love and acceptance are most likely to become authoritarian parents. Because they severely lack self-love and compassion for themselves, they often feel ashamed and not good enough. They tend to pass this on to their parents through their authoritarian parenting tactics. E.g. "How many times do I have to tell you the same thing?," or "Can't you even do such a simple thing right?" These are aimed to make the child feel ashamed.
Effects on the child: Shame is an extremely toxic emotion. It tends to turn self-annihilating by turning all the anger, rage, fear, sorrow, poor self-esteem and lack of trust inward. As a result, the child internalizes the parent's words and an inner critic develops in their psyche. A critic that is ruthless and constantly indulging self-criticism, belittling, self-berating, and self-doubting. The words heard in childhood carry one as negative self-talk: "Who am I kidding, I can never get this right." Or, "there is no way I will get this job/project/opportunity. Look at everyone, so talented. I am nothing compared to them."
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