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Child in mind

Authoritarian vs. authoritative

Franck Camhi

Adapted from the Child In Mind blog on

Authoritarian parenting, as in “my way or the highway,” and its opposite, permissive parenting with lack of limit setting, may be linked with difficulty with emotional regulation in children.

In contrast, an “authoritative” parenting style is associated with an enhanced capacity for emotional regulation, flexible thinking, and social competence. An authoritative parenting stance encompasses respect for and curiosity about a child, together with containment of intense feelings and limits on behavior.

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Parental authority is something that in ideal circumstances comes naturally with the job. It is not something that needs to be learned in books from “experts.” In fact our culture of “advice” and “parent training” may unintentionally undermine that natural authority.

But what might cause a parent to lose that natural authority? Stress is far and away the most common culprit. That stress might be in part coming from the child himself, if, for example, he is a particularly “fussy” or “dysregulated” baby. It might come from the everyday challenges of managing a family and work in today’s fast-paced culture, often without the support of extended family. It may come from more complex relational issues between parents, between siblings, between generations.

When I work with families of young children, my aim is to help parents reconnect with their natural authority. By offering space and time to listen to their story, including addressing the wide range of stresses in their lives, my hope is that together we will make sense of, or find meaning in, their child’s behavior. Armed with this understanding, “what to do” usually follows naturally.

I have learned that it is important to be explicit about this approach. As I write on my website:

Parents often come to a pediatrician with expectation of advice and judgment. Our culture may support this expectation by our reliance on “behavior management” and increasingly on medication to treat “behavior problems” in children.

Some guidance about “what to do” may naturally enter into the conversation. But I have found that premature “advice,” without full understanding of the complexity of the situation, can often lead to frustration and failure. In contrast, when a parent has that “aha” moment of insight, the joy and pleasure that comes from recognition and reconnection, for both parent and child, can be exhilarating.

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