Over the last several years, as more and more research on different parenting styles has emerged, counselors have been faced with the daunting task of communicating this information to parents. The most significant findings to date have revealed four primary styles of parenting: neglectful, authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative parenting, each of which can be found to exist on two distinct continuums. The first continuum is based on the level of responsiveness a parent exhibits with regard to a child's wants and needs. This can range from a parent who is extremely responsive to every wish, want, desire, and need of a child at one end, to a parent who is completely unresponsive to their child's needs at the other end. The second continuum is based on how demanding a parent is with regard to setting boundaries and making demands. At one end of this continuum is a parent who sets very firm boundaries and makes clear, firm demands, while at the other end is a parent who sets no boundaries and makes requests that are quickly withdrawn at the first sign of resistance from a child.
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Before we address the behavioral outcomes of each parenting style and their long-term effects, let us first look at the two different dimensions of parental responsiveness and parental demandingness in more detail. Responsiveness, sometimes referred to as level of warmth, is more than simply responding when a child calls. It is composed of several factors including: paying attention, listening, showing interest and getting involved in activities, demonstrating acceptance of the child and the child's needs, making encouraging remarks, being supportive when needed, and consenting to a child's requests when reasonable. The focus is on creating a positive emotional climate, hence the term warmth. At the other end of the spectrum is a parent who shows very little responsiveness towards their child. This rejection of both the child and the child's needs creates a negative emotional climate. The key question with regard to this dimension seems to be: How much responsiveness is enough, and how much is too much?
The focus of parental demandingness, which is sometimes referred to as the control dimension, is discipline and the teaching of rules and standards. Demanding parents set minimally acceptable levels of behavior that they believe are in the best interest of the child. A child is expected to adapt to these standards by eliminating or minimizing unacceptable behaviors and by performing other, more suitable behaviors. Ideally, a parent maintains the focus on the long-term best interests of a child by helping the child to develop self-control and a sense of security. In addition, a demanding parent assists a child in adapting behaviors to socially accepted norms and developing social skills. The key question here is usually: How demanding or controlling should a parent be to produce ideal results?
These two dimensions, when combined, produce four fundamental parenting styles. Please keep in mind that these styles are not absolutes; rather, they vary in degree as one moves up and down a particular continuum, ranging from slightly above or below average to very high or very low at the extreme ends. The authoritative parenting style, which is universally recognized as the most optimal of the four, is the result of parents who are high in responsiveness and high in demandingness. We will return to discuss the authoritative approach in detail, but first, for the sake of clarity, understand that the labels given to the next three parenting styles are mentioned here primarily for the purpose of comparison. The second style, authoritarian parenting, is seen when parents are low in responsiveness but high in demandingness. The third style, known as permissive parenting, is when parents are high in responsiveness but low in demandingness. The fourth style, uninvolved or neglectful parenting, is the consequence of low responsiveness and low demandingness. Let us now look at the authoritative parenting style in more depth and the outcomes it produces in a child's behavior and development.
Authoritative parents create a positive emotional atmosphere by being highly responsive. Simultaneously, they are demanding and set high expectations for mature behavior while giving children firm, clear rules, standards, and boundaries. Two-way communication is encouraged. Affection is openly given and received. Clarity is a focus when elucidating demands; children are not simply expected to blindly follow orders, rather, explanations are given so that they can understand the reasons behind the requests.
The outcomes that the authoritative parenting style produces are numerous and significant. Children who are the recipients of this approach can be found to be adaptable, competent, and achievement oriented. They are usually wholeheartedly accepted by their peers; perhaps because they demonstrate good social skills while at the same time exhibiting low levels of aggressive and antisocial behaviors. In addition, high self-esteem and a high level of self-regulation are typically found to be present, creating an overall positive developmental path for such children.
The other three styles produce less optimal results. Authoritarian parenting tends to produce children who are more irritable, conflicted, angry, and anxious, while at the same time less self-regulating. Permissive parenting has a tendency to cause children to be impulsive, uncontrolled, and lacking in self-reliance while being highly aggressive. Uninvolved/neglectful parenting also produces impulsivity, but in addition, children exhibit high levels of externalizing and internalizing problems.
With all this in mind, the question of how to produce the optimum outcomes seen in the authoritative parenting approach is now paramount. There are three primary methods parents utilize in controlling or influencing the behavior of their children. The most effective of these is induction, or the use of explanations. Giving clear reasons while appealing to their interest to be grown-up tends to be most helpful in assisting children to accept and internalize rules, standards, and boundaries. Furthermore, explaining the consequences of their actions on others tends to promote empathy.
The other methods for exercising control, power assertion and love withdrawal, have been found to be less effective in producing long-term acceptance of rules and can even produce negative consequences. Both power assertion and love withdrawal can produce immediate compliance, which is sometimes not only necessary, but crucial for the well being of a child. Nevertheless, the results of such compliance are short lived and long-term utilization of these methods can produce high levels of anxiety, anger, and aggressiveness. The key in choosing a method of control is to be aware that all three categories are useful and will likely be employed at one time or another, but that the most frequently utilized method will have long-term consequences.
With all of this in mind, let us address a few remaining points. The quality of the relationship between parent and child seems to be far more important than any particular practice; children tend to act in accordance with their parents demands when they perceive them as responsive and warm. There are also modifying factors that may affect behaviors and development, such as a child's temperament or the cultural context in which a child is raised. At the end of the day, a parent's responsibility is to do the best job they can with the knowledge they have.
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