One of the things I have the privilege to do is to meet with parents who are looking for support in connecting with and disciplining their children. Many of these parents have sought out counseling because they or their partner are unhappy with their approach to discipline or with the reactions they are getting from their children. Many tell me that they aren’t sure where to start because they never had an example of nurturing parenting themselves. My mantra in teaching the ingredients for effective discipline has been “Boundaries and Empathy.” I want to stop and make an important distinction here about the word discipline as it is often wrongly associated with physical punishment implemented when a rule is broken. The word discipline, however, comes from the root for disciple, someone who learns from a teacher. In that respect, we as parents are constantly disciplining our children. We are teaching our children important life skills by modeling, through discussion, and through the use of natural and logical consequences. That said, parenting experts have identified four different parenting styles and each one is set distinguished by the presence or lack of boundaries and empathy.
Authoritarian parenting (high boundaries, low empathy) is what we typically identify as that very strict and stern parent. The parent sets the rules without input from the child, often based on external expectations. When the child breaks a rule there is swift punishment. Punishment is meant to be painful in order to deter the child from rule-breaking. Children are expected to obey immediately and there is little tolerance for boundary pushing. These parents have very firm boundaries but little to no empathy. This parenting style can be immediately rewarding for the parent as the child learns to fear the punishment and thus become obedient and submissive. In the long term, however, this style of parenting leads to fear of and disconnection from the parent. Some children will naturally be more submissive and others will rebel, seeking to break free of the constant control. The submissive child will be more likely to cave to peer pressure, be bullied, or enter an abusive relationship. The rebellious child will be likely to have behavior problems in school and with the law. These children don’t have the opportunity to learn self discipline as their choices are constantly controlled. They learn to be blindly obedient to authority or push back against any authority. In neither case do children learn to think for themselves; this can lead to feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and depression. Without empathic parents to rely on, children raised in authoritarian households will likely not reach out to their parents if they are experiencing difficult emotions or circumstances, like being bullied at school.
Permissive parenting (low boundaries, high empathy) is characterized by few rules, but lots of emotional responsiveness. These parents may be seen as “fun parents,” rarely enforcing rules, bedtimes, or homework. As children of permissive parents enter the teen years, the lack of boundaries becomes a more high-stakes proposition, impacting issues like setting curfews and placing limits on parties and drinking to ensure safety. Permissive parents sympathize with their child and express understanding for why their child is acting the way they do, but do not follow through then with setting boundaries and consequences. Their children struggle with self discipline for different reasons then the child of an authoritarian parent. Because there has been no discipline in the home, there is no opportunity to learn to set boundaries for themselves. If there is more than one child in the home, there is likely to be conflict between the siblings as they have no guidance for learning to respect the person and property of the other. These children may have behavior problems at home and at school, may find it challenging to make and maintain friendships, and may become unmotivated to seek out more challenging and rewarding opportunities for growth.
The Uninvolved parent (low boundaries, low empathy) sets little to no boundaries and is emotionally unconnected to their child. Essentially, there is a high level of neglect in this parenting style. Children feel forgotten, uncared for, and may become depressed and anxious and have trouble with the law and in their peer group. These parents may be struggling themselves with depression, alcohol and drug dependence, or may have had to hold down multiple jobs to provide financially for their family, leaving the children to fend for themselves. Children become easily parentified, taking on adult responsibilities at an early age and will likely have difficulty asking for help and connecting emotionally with a partner or friend.
The Authoritative Parent (high boundaries, high empathy) is the final parenting style. As you can guess, this parent has found a healthy balance between boundaries and empathy. Because the parent is emotionally connected with their child, they are able to set boundaries and consequences with the understanding of the unique personality and needs of each child. They communicate their expectations regularly and patiently. The consequences are logical and are meant not to be punitive but to teach important life skills. For example, if the child has an explosive outburst, the parent responds by empathizing with the emotions of the child while setting a firm boundary about communicating their feelings in a manner that is safe and respectful of others. This is done through modeling and by patiently coaching the child to recognize their own emotions and need to take a moment to calm themselves so they can communicate effectively. The child learns that their feelings and thoughts are important and they learn to respect and listen to the feelings and thoughts of those around them. The child feels connected to the parent, learns self discipline, shows empathy towards others, and sets healthy boundaries in their relationships. A child who grows up with boundaries and empathy are at a lower risk of developing anxiety and depression. That is not to say the child will not struggle with anxiety and depression as there are multiple external and internal factors, but having this emotional and physical security in the home provides a critical foundation for managing stressful situations.
Now that you understand the four parenting styles, how can you ensure that you have a balance of empathy and boundaries in your home?
- Connect with your child regularly. There is an old proverb that reads: Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. I believe if we approached our relationship with our children with this in mind our children will feel connected, heard, and loved and this will transform the conflict in the home.
- Practice approaching your child’s behavior difficulties with compassion, seeking to understand the underlying emotions that are leading to their disobedience.
- Set clear boundaries in your home, and create a system of logical consequences. If you’re not sure where to start, I highly recommend a search on AhaParenting.com and signing up for her weekly newsletter.
- Communicate your boundaries and consequences regularly, avoiding shaming language and instead taking on the role of an educator. Understand that you will have to be patient and consistent. You didn’t learn the alphabet after one run through the song and your children won’t learn and remember to follow through on expectations overnight.
- When your child does break a rule, maintain your calm. Empathize with them while patiently reminding them of the boundaries and consequences that you have agreed on. Avoid shaming them; shame breeds disconnection and turns off the learning centers of the brain. You can empathize with their feelings of anger simply by acknowledging that you see how they feel. It is not condoning the rule breaking, it simply tells your child that you see them and hear them all while lovingly maintaining the boundaries that will keep them safe.
By thinking critically about the balance of boundaries and empathy in our parenting style, we can powerfully shape the experiences of our children in our homes. Children whose parents set clear boundaries and engage with their emotions feel safe and understood, and are able to figure things out with appropriate guidance.
Hannah Lindsay, MSW, LCSW-C provides family and individual therapy in our Sterling, VA office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Hannah.