From time to time, a new parenting style hits the headlines: tethered parenting, helicopter parenting, loose parenting. But in child psychology, based on the work of Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist, experts point to four main parenting styles — neglectful, authoritarian, authoritarian, and permissive — that influence how children grow and interact.
“Without much intentional thought, parenting styles are often a combination of learned instincts drawn from a parent’s own experience, temperament and role models,” said Rachel Robertson, vice president of education at Bright Horizons. “That doesn’t mean a parent is stuck with the style that comes most naturally to them, if it’s not ideal.”
She pointed out that parents can swing between styles depending on the situation – and that by being mindful and intentional, they can make thoughtful choices and create habits that will help them raise their children the way they want.
“Just being aware of effective parenting strategies can help a parent pause and act purposefully at a time when they would otherwise act instinctively or emotionally,” Robertson explained. “Parenting is about the moment, but it’s also about the long term – parents raise human beings who we all hope will become full citizens, future leaders, lifelong learners. lifelong and stewards of the future they will inherit.”
HuffPost sat down with Robertson and family therapist Kelly Oriard to break down the four parenting styles and how each approach affects children.
″[Neglectful] the style is hands-off and uninvolved,” Robertson said. “This style may or may not be intentional, depending on the parent. Communication, interaction and participation in activities are limited.
To better understand neglectful parenting and the other three styles, it is important to consider the emotional climate, which is essentially the general mood and perception of a family and the relationship dynamics within it.
“For children, the emotional climate, especially a warm emotional climate, is that your caregiver wants to engage with your interests, support you, encourage you, and meet your needs,” said Oriard, co-founder of Slumberkins, a brand education centered on emotional learning. “It can feel like snuggling up to read their favorite story or supporting them after something hasn’t quite happened.”
In the neglectful parenting style, there is low emotional warmth, as this type of caregiver tends to have low levels of interaction with their child.
“When disciplining, these parents tend to choose harsher techniques and offer little or no explanation,” Oriard said. “This parent is like the boss you barely see at work. You end up learning on the fly and understanding because direction and interaction is minimal. Then, if you make a mistake because of the low level of leadership, your boss gets angry and lash out at you in front of your peers and superiors.
She noted that this type of boss won’t go back or contact you, might fire you right away, and might worry about making future mistakes. A neglectful parent can leave behind similar negative feelings.
“Unfortunately, kids who have neglectful and uninvolved parents tend to have a lot of problems growing up,” Oriard said. “These children may have mental health issues related to depression and anxiety, they may have poor social skills and may even be prone to future substance abuse.”
“Authoritative parents expect kids to listen, follow directions, and obey,” Robertson said. “This style is considered strict and disciplinary. There is a lack of flexibility and a strong expectation of compliance.
Similar to the neglectful parenting style, authoritarian parenting involves low emotional warmth, but what makes it different is a high level of demandingness and control – terms that refer to the extent to which parents try to control behavior and the development of their child.
“We all want our children to be accepted and loved and part of that helps them navigate social norms,” Oriard said. “Where demand and control become problematic is when adults take an adult-centered approach and try to control their child for their benefit rather than for the good of the child.”
She noted that the authoritarian style’s combination of low emotional warmth and high demands can seem particularly strict and cold.
“Without the emotional support, these children may struggle socially and suffer from mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression,” Oriard explained. “This is because a high demand without a warm emotional climate can create an environment that is not only about behavioral control but psychological control as well. Psychological control is much harsher and uses shame and guilt to manipulate the child or compel them to do what the caregiver wants or expects them to do.
In his office analogy above, this scenario is like having a boss who only cares about productivity and goals and is relentless about how he achieves those goals. This boss doesn’t seem to care about the employee as a person and fosters a cold, harsh, and restrictive environment.
“Authoritative parents set clear expectations and provide structure and routine, but remain flexible,” Robertson said. “There is a clear parent-child dynamic, but children are respected, listened to and have choices. Authoritative parents are caring and reliable.
Research indicates that the authoritarian style is the most beneficial for children’s development and therefore the style to look for as a parent. It is about creating a warm emotional climate associated with a healthy, moderate to high level of demand and control.
“He’s the boss we all love working for,” Oriard said. “This boss is in the office and is friendly and welcoming to all his employees. They know Suzy fell off her bike last week and checked on herself to see how she was doing. This boss has high expectations of all his employees, but communicates this openly and is willing to discuss trying things in a different way if you think it would help.
For children, an authoritative parent is supportive, responsive, and nurturing. They are kind, caring, and loving, but also set firm boundaries and have high expectations. They explain their reasoning and listen to their child’s point of view, even if they don’t engage in it.
“When high expectations are paired with a warm emotional climate, children are better able to thrive,” Oriard said. “While neglectful and uninvolved parenting leads to many negative outcomes, authoritarian parenting is known as the style that creates the most positive outcomes for children.”
“Permissive parents are warm and loving, but this style is without a lot of rules or structure,” Robertson noted. “Sometimes that parenting would be described as more of a friendly relationship than a parenting one. There are far fewer directives or expectations and children have a lot of autonomy and a voice in most decisions. If rules are established, they are often not applied.
Permissive parenting involves a warm emotional climate but little demand and control.
“If their kid hits your kid on the playground, they don’t jump up to correct the behavior, they just let it go and tell the kids,” Oriard said. “In the office, it’s the boss who doesn’t know exactly what’s going on. They don’t have many requirements and let you do your own thing. If you mess up a huge project, that’s fine. Carefree. Yelled at your client on the phone? No problem.”
She noted that children of permissive parents tend to have behavioral issues and struggle socially.
“They might also struggle a bit in school or in environments where there are rules to follow,” added Oriard.
Like the other styles, this one is not fixed. There are practical ways to make changes to go from a less efficient style to an authoritative style.
“If a parent tends to be more permissive and have informal schedules or an unpredictable routine, it can be tricky for children as they use routines and schedules to learn more about the routines of the day, what s ‘expect, how to feel safe, and what can be trusted,” Robertson said. “A permissive parent can start by creating a consistent bedtime routine, knowing it will help their child’s development.”
Yet even the best parents won’t be authoritative 100% of the time. Everyone has days when they are less patient or more forgiving than they normally would be.
“It’s okay to be flexible and do your best every day,” Oriard said. “Understanding these parenting styles is just a small window into how we as caregivers can best support our children as they grow into incredible adults. All we can hope for is that when grow up, our children will be caring, confident and resilient members of our community.