Monday, April 29, 2013

Authoritative Parenting Has the Edge

by Tracey Powell, MS
In my coaching practice, when I begin to see family routine tides turning from frustrating and negative to more optimistic and healthy, two shifts are typically happening: 1) parents begin taking responsibility for their actions and get curious on how they can better influence their children’s behavior, 2) parents make less frequent use of practices falling into either the Authoritarian or Permissive parenting category, and instead begin opting for a more Authoritative approach.

If you can get past the confusing Authoritarian/Authoritative terminology, consider that Authoritative styles are consistently associated with positive outcomes for kids, like self-reliance, compliance, positive attitudes, etc. In Authoritative parenting the parent determines the structure, the child makes the choice to follow the structure or not (and experience consequences). This style teaches the child they can make good decisions and experience the payoffs.

It's especially important for children with ADHD and related conditions to experience a consistent structure where they can learn and experience some success. I also find in my family coaching work that parents come in frustrated, and may have forgotten their power to teach their child new habits and reward their efforts step by step. So, if you feel you've been stuck in your efforts to bring about a more peaceful, effective routine with your kids, it might be time to check in on your parenting style.

An Authoritarian style is typically a bit demanding, holding sometimes unrealistically high expectations (especially if the child has ADHD or other learning disability), and downplaying the need for the child to have input into decisionmaking. Authoritarian parents sometimes have a hard time rewarding progress, and might wonder, “Why should I thank my kid for making his bed, when that’s what he’s supposed to be doing?!”

If you find yourself using or thinking phrases like, “You might not like me but you will respect me,” or “do it now or else you won’t see your phone all weekend,” you might have Authoritarian parenting tendencies. The big problem with Authoritarian parenting techniques is they tend not to work for children with ADHD and related conditions. They can escalate conflict; leave little room for relationship building between the parent and child; and don't nurture the child's budding decisionmaking skills.

Parents with a Permissive style typically prefer to avoid conflict, provide inconsistent or no structure regarding rules and boundaries, and sometimes fall into relating to their kids more as friends than parents. Sometimes Permissive parents have trouble regulating their own emotions and behaviors. They can sometimes be overly helpful (enabling) toward their children and fail to support their kids in learning self-reliance. Sometimes the kid’s failure to take responsibility catches the Permissive parent on a bad day, leading the parent to do something drastic like throw out all the toys when a child won’t clean them up. The parent might later feel bad for overreacting and replace all the toys, leading to a lesson-not-learned.

Permissive parenting is ineffective for a child with ADHD because these children (and children in general) do best with consistency and clearly-set limits. The children end up feeling less safe and don’t take the parent seriously because of the lack of consistency, and the parent can feel drained by allowing so much flexibility.

Authoritative parents have high standards, but have reasonable expectations and take their children’s uniqueness into account when setting those expectations. It can be hard to shift toward being more Authoritative because sometimes parents feel they’re giving kids too much control, or it seems like extra work to always be calm and think of choices for the kids to make. I would argue that making the shift is worth some discomfort at first. You won’t be there to make all your child’s decisions, so it's important to make sure they have this skill. If you’re still not convinced, give some of the techniques a try and see if you find they’re more effective with your child. Kids can certainly surprise us when we put a goal out there, take a step back, and let them take charge of whether they're going to meet it.

If you've been leaning on an Authoritarian style, try thinking less about controlling the situation and more about building the trusting relationship and skills you want to develop with your kids.

Permissive parents, try thinking less about helping and doing things quickly, and more about building good self-care habits for yourself and your kids.

Remember it's about balance between being loving and providing structure, and supporting the growing tide of independence in our kids. Where do you fall on the Authoritarian—Permissive spectrum? Do you think Authoritative practices work best?

Tracey Powell, MS, has over five years of experience as an individual coach/therapist and family coach and is affiliated with Psych Ed Coaches in Northern Virginia. She specializes in working with people with ADHD and related conditions including anxiety, depression, social challenges, and academic/career/personal transitions. Tracey works with children through adults and takes a supportive, action-oriented approach to helping clients meet clearly defined goals. She really enjoys helping parents develop positive parenting practices. Tracey is also a certified volunteer parenting educator with CHADD.


  1. Thank you for t his timely article. I am a permissive parent who knows I need to be authoritative. I have even made out some non negotiable rules, and consequences/rewards for following. The rub is in enforcing them. That's where I need practice.

    1. I suggest thinking about what trips you up in enforcement..could be time constraints? Continuous whining or arguing? Consider allowing yourself extra time if time crunches get in your way. With whining and push back, try the broken record technique...,"You can get that..I'm tied up right now...You need to...or "I love you way too much to argue about that." and just stop the debate. Once you step out of it you might be surprised to see your child make a positive choice.

      Also consider whether you're fully utilizing positive rewards for compliance, like specific verbal praise, tokens or charts to show progress toward increasingly enticing goals!
      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Great examples for authoritarian and permissive styles -- wish there were also three or four useful specifics re: authoritative. Thanks for the article!

  3. A cardinal rule in ADHD parenting is "positive parenting" that teaches parents to (as one of the many learned techniques) to avoid conflict and power struggles at all costs. The strict authoritarian approach is a prescription for disaster and especially in children with comorbidities and disorder such as: anxiety, mood, depression, oppositional defiance and the like. Agreeably, there is fine balance between responsibility, accountability, consequences, and reward - but one size NEVER fits all as no two ADHD childrean are alike.

    This brings me to a very related point. As parents, we know all too well that the school systems are ill equipped and (dire I say) none-tolerant of children with ADHD who are labeled as not focused, hyper, and under achievers. As the supreme court ruled, "You are not entitled to a Cadilac, but a servicable Chevy".

    So, as parents, find the best positive parenting style for your child and become their #1 advocate as he/she grows and develops.

  4. I would love some specific examples of Authoritative Parenting. Does anyone have any examples they could share. Thanks for the article!!

    1. Thanks for the requests on specific Authoritative Parenting techniques. Let's see...think of being the "friendly boss" when you think Authoritative. If your child has ADHD, be very clear and use resources to help him/her have a visual on the limits your setting. Visual timers and checklists are good tools. So it's a comparison between "Get off the computer now" (because I said so) vs. "Remember you can stick to the 30 minute limit for computer and earn points and get a good night of sleep, or blow off the time limit and earn a work chore/loss of computer next day. Your choice, here's the timer - and walk away. (encouraging good decision-making as opposed to simple compliance with rules). If they don't make a good choice, you're matter-of-fact about it, saying, "I know you'll make a better choice next time but tomorrow you won't be able to use the computer." You don't feel disrespected but rather realize they need to experience this consequence to make a better choice next time.

      For a younger child, a simple, "Remember, the rule -you must brush teeth or you don't see your show, your choice." If the show is an effective carrot, the child should make the healthier choice in order to have the reward of the show. They're doing it because it's a better choice for them, not just because the parent said so.

      The permissive parent is weary and might think" she won't listen and I'm just sick of asking her to get off the computer."
      In authoritarian, there are more power struggles because kids have no say into the structure/rules in place and receive fewer incentives for making healthy choices.

      Let me know if you'd like more examples.

  5. The most common stimulant medications are methylphenidate (Ritalin), dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), and mixed amphetamine salts (Adderall).Atomoxetine (Strattera), guanfacine (Intuniv) and clonidine (Kapvay) are non-stimulant drugs approved for the treatment of ADHD.