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The Parenting Style Continuum – Where Do You Fall?

Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Parenting styles lie on a continuum. At both extremes we have dysfunction and harm. The closer we get to the middle, the better environment for children to grow and thrive.

There has been general consensus over the years that there are three main parenting styles: Permissive, Authoritarian and Authoritative (with Authoritative being the ideal). But because humans are not robots, we are not so easily placed into three simple categories. It might be better to view parenting styles as along a continuum. Let’s consider the continuum and then look at what range on the continuum provides both the safety and structure that kids need to thrive.

We can view parenting styles through the lens of a continuum of control, with high need for control on one end and no need for control on the other.

The extreme ends of the parenting style continuum

At the extreme controlling end of this spectrum, lie parents who are abusive and use threats and fear to control their child’s behavior.

On the other end of the continuum, lie neglectful parents who have no desire to control their children because to them, the child is not important.

Due to substance abuse and mental health issues, parents can vacillate between these two extremes. Healthy attachments and a sense of unconditional love, belonging and safety cannot be formed at either end of this spectrum. They are both devoid of warmth and true connection.

These are clearly extremes. As we move away from the extreme ends of the spectrum, we can start to see more adaptive ways of parenting emerge.

The middle ground

As we move away from the abusive, controlling parenting style, we begin to enter the realm of what is often referred to as an authoritarian parenting style. This is the children-should-be-seen-but-not-heard mentality to parenting. They have have high expectations for behavior and performance, but tend to have lower levels of warmth and genuine connection to their children. They can be motivated by fear of judgement and often see their children’s behavior as as reflection on them. The child’s obedience is often their goal.

Back at the neglectful side of the spectrum, when we move away from that extreme, we can see the permissive parenting style emerge. These parents may have greater warmth toward their children, but hold very few expectations for behavior. These parents allow freedom of choice and often have the avoidance of conflict as their main motivation for their parenting style. The child’s happiness is often their goal.

As one would expect, the parenting style that creates the healthiest environment for secure attachment, safety, love and belongingness is towards the center of this spectrum. This is often referred to as authoritative parenting. Here are some distinguishing characteristics of these types of parents:

  • They have clear boundaries that lets the child know who holds the authority but also allow ample opportunities for the child to voice his or her thoughts and feelings.
  • Their children feel safe to share hard feelings and express difficult emotions.
  • They feel they have a “handle” on the task of parenting and don’t use fear to motivate or control when their children’s behavior turns challenging.
  • They are not afraid to say “no” and hold children accountable in kind but firm ways.
  • They are also not afraid to admit when they have made a mistake and humbly seek restoration.
  • They express and warmth and focus on connection with their children.
  • Their children feel and know that they are unconditionally loved.

Take a few moments today to objectively evaluate where you fall on the continuum. Parenting, like any endeavor in life, is about growth and change. It is important to figure out what kind of parent you want to be with your children and establish small goals to work towards that goal with compassion and understanding that change is often hard.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed therapist who offers individual and parent counseling to residents of Connecticut. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married with a young adult son and a teenage daughter.

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