Every so often, a new parenting style makes the headlines: attachment parenting, helicopter parenting, free-range parenting. But in child psychology, based on the work of Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist, experts point to four main parenting styles ― neglectful, authoritarian, authoritative and permissive ― that influence how children grow and interact.
“Without a lot of intentional thought, parenting styles are often a combination of learned instincts gained from a parent’s own experience, temperament and role models,” said Rachel Robertson, vice president of education at Bright Horizons. “It doesn’t mean a parent is stuck with whatever style comes most naturally to them, if it isn’t ideal.”
She emphasized parents can fluctuate between styles depending on the situation ― and by having awareness and intention can make thoughtful choices and create habits that will help them raise their kids the way they want.
“Simply being aware of effective parenting strategies can help a parent pause and act purposefully in a moment they may have otherwise acted instinctually or emotionally,” Robertson explained. “Parenting is an in-the-moment kind of activity but it also is really about the long game ― parents are raising human beings who we all hope grow to be contributing citizens, future leaders, lifelong learners and stewards of the future they will inherit.”
HuffPost spoke with Robertson and family therapist Kelly Oriard to break down the four parenting styles and how each approach affects children.
″[Neglectful] style is hands-off and uninvolved,” Robertson said. “This style may be intentional or unintentional, depending on the parent. Communication, interaction and involvement in activities is limited.”
To better understand neglectful parenting and the other three styles, it’s important to consider emotional climate, which is basically the overall mood and perception of a family and the relationship dynamics within it.
“For children, emotional climate, especially a warm emotional climate, is your caregiver wanting to be involved with your interests, supporting you, cheering you on and being responsive to your needs,” said Oriard, who is a co-founder of Slumberkins, an educational brand focused on emotional learning. “It can look like snuggling up to read their favorite story or supporting them after something didn’t quite go their way.”
In the neglectful parenting style, there’s 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 to no explanation,” Oriard said. “This parent is like the boss who you barely see at work. You end up learning on the fly and figuring it out because direction and interaction is minimal. Then if you do make a mistake because of the low level of direction, your boss becomes enraged and takes it out on you in front of your peers and higher-ups.”
She noted that this type of boss would not circle back or touch base with you, might dismiss you on the spot and may leave you feeling anxious about making future mistakes. A neglectful parent can leave similar negative feelings.
“Unfortunately, children who have neglectful-uninvolved parents tend to have numerous problems as they grow up,” Oriard said. “These children may have mental health struggles related to depression and anxiety, they may have poor social skills and can even be prone to future substance abuse.”
“Authoritarian parents expect children to listen, follow directions and obey,” Robertson said. “This style is considered to be strict and a disciplinarian. There is a lack of flexibility and high 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 demand and control ― terms that refer to the extent to which parents try to control their child’s behavior and development.
“We all want our children to be accepted and liked and part of that is helping them to navigate social norms,” Oriard said. “When demandingness and control become problematic is when adults take an adult-centered approach and try to control their child for their benefit instead of for the betterment of the child.”
She noted that the authoritarian style’s combination of low emotional warmth and high demandingness can feel particularly strict and cold.
“Without the emotional support, these kids can struggle socially and suffer from mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression,” Oriard explained. “This is due to the fact that high demandingness without a warm emotional climate can create an environment that is not only about behavioral control but psychological control. Psychological control is much harsher and uses shame and guilt to manipulate the child or coerce the child into doing what the caregiver wants or expects of them.”
Under her office analogy above, this scenario is like having a boss who only cares about productivity and goals and is relentless about how they achieve 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 given choices. Authoritative parents are nurturing and reliable.”
Research indicates that the authoritative style is the most beneficial for children’s development and thus the style to strive for as a parent. It’s about creating a warm emotional climate coupled with a healthy, moderate-to-high level of demandingness and control.
“This is the boss that we all love working for,” Oriard said. “This boss is in the office and is friendly and welcoming to all of their employees. They know that Suzy fell off her bike last week and checked in to see how she was doing. This boss has high expectations of all their employees but communicates this openly and is willing to discuss trying things in a different way if you feel like it would help you.”
For children, an authoritative parent is supportive, responsive and nurturing. They are kind, caring and loving but also set firm limits and have high expectations. They explain their reasoning and listen to their child’s viewpoint, even if they don’t indulge it.
“When high expectations are coupled with a warm emotional climate, kids are better able to thrive,” Oriard said. “While neglectful-uninvolved parenting leads to numerous negative outcomes, authoritative 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 this parent would be described as more of a friend relationship than parental. There is a lot less direction or expectation and children are given a lot of autonomy and a voice in most decisions. If rules are set, they are often unenforced.”
Permissive parenting involves a warm emotional climate but low demandingness and control.
“If their child hits your child on the playground, they do not jump up to correct the behavior, they just let it go and chalk it up to kids being kids,” Oriard said. “In the office, this is the boss who doesn’t exactly know what is up. They don’t have a lot of demands and let you do your own thing. If you mess up a huge project, it’s fine. No worries. You yelled at your client over the phone? Not a problem.”
She noted that children of permissive parents tend to have behavioral issues and struggle socially.
“They might also struggle a bit at school or in environments where there are rules to follow,” Oriard added.
Like the other styles, this one isn’t fixed. There are practical ways to make changes to move away from a less effective style and more toward an authoritative style.
“If a parent tends to be more permissive and have informal schedules or unpredictability in routine, this can be tricky for children as they use routines and schedules to learn about the patterns of the day, what to expect, how to feel secure and what can be relied on,” Robertson said. “A permissive parent can start by creating a consistent bedtime routine, knowing this will help their child’s development.”
Still, even the best of parents won’t be authoritative 100% of the time. Everyone has days when they’re less patient or more indulgent than they would normally be.
“It is OK to be flexible and to do the best you can each day,” Oriard said. “Understanding these parenting styles is just a small window into understanding how we as caregivers can best support our children as they grow into amazing adults. All any of us can hope for is that when they are grown, our children will be caring, confident and resilient members of our community.”