How to Use Authoritative Parenting With Troubled Teens

Mother and teen daughter talking in living room
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Authoritative parenting is a parenting approach that can be especially useful with struggling teens. That's because while this parenting style centers on a positive relationship between parents and kids, it also sets firm expectations and boundaries. Therefore, it can help teens see that although their parents love them, they will not enable them.

This parenting style utilizes "tough love" combined empathy to send a message that essentially says, "I know you don't like the rules, but I'm going to enforce them anyway because it's good for you, and I love you."

This article explains the principles and benefits of authoritative parenting and tough love. It also offers some examples of how to use this approach.

What Is Authoritative Parenting?

Authoritative parenting is often confused with authoritarian parenting. However, these two parenting styles are different.

  • Authoritarian: Authoritarian parents use a "my way or the highway approach." That's because they're more concerned with getting kids to comply rather than teaching life lessons and skills.
  • Authoritative: Authoritative parents, on the other hand, put a lot of effort into maintaining a positive relationship with their kids. They enforce rules and give consequences to teach life lessons. Authoritative parents discuss the rules and offer explanations for them, and their kids' thoughts and feelings are valued.

Basic Principles

The overall idea behind the authoritative approach is for parents to love their child enough to consistently set firm limits and follow through with appropriate consequences when a teen breaks the rules. That's why parents use this kind of tough love with troubled teens who make risky choices. In these cases, a parent may need to let a child face the natural consequences of their behavior.

Another important tenet of authoritative parenting with teens is teaching teens to be responsible for the choices they make. The following teen parenting strategies utilize authoritative parenting principles:

  • Boundaries: Consistently set and enforce reasonable expectations, limits, and boundaries.
  • Balance: Find a balance between guiding your child and granting too much freedom.
  • Independence: Let go of trying to control your child. Let them make their own choices and allow them to experience the consequences.
  • Love: Let your teen see your love while being firm when discipline is needed.
  • Respect: Remember your teen is an individual going through significant changes while growing into an adult.
  • Support: Seek professional help when necessary.
  • Adapt: Take a stand and take charge if a child creates an unsafe or unmanageable situation in the home.

What It Isn't

In some cases, authoritative parenting has been conflated with a twisted version of "tough love" and used inappropriately. Authoritative strategies do not involve abuse or kicking teens out of the house. Those approaches go against the authoritative philosophy that prioritizes relationships.

Additionally, some teen boot camps and military schools claim to use "tough love." However, many of them rely on authoritarian rather than authoritative philosophies.

Authoritative approaches do not:

  • Advocate embarrassing, shaming, or abusing teens in any way
  • Favor harsh rules or physical punishments
  • Involve threats of calling the police to scare children into behaving
  • Lock or kick teens out of the house
  • Suggest producing pain in teens (To the contrary, they advocate bringing about positive changes.)

Recap

Authoritative parenting emphasizes positive relationships between parents and kids. The goal is to teach life lessons, often through natural consequences. Being an authoritative parent requires flexibility, creativity, and firm boundaries. Authoritative strategies never involve shaming, pain, threats, or physical punishment.

Benefits

Compared to authoritarian parenting, the outcomes of authoritative parenting are very different. Below is a comparison of these two styles and their effects on children.

Authoritative Parenting
  • Kids develop close relationships with their parents.

  • Kids are responsible, have high self-esteem, and manage aggression appropriately.

  • Children learn how to be assertive, socially skilled, and cooperative.

  • Kids tend to be happy, capable, and successful.

Authoritarian Parenting
  • Kids rebel against authority, including parents.

  • Kids are uncertain and have poor self esteem.

  • Children are aggressive, socially unskilled, and may model rigid behavior.

  • Kids may have trouble thinking for themselves and carry resentment and anger.

Authoritative parenting helps a teen become more responsible for their behavior. Unlike permissive parenting, which rescues kids or offers extra chances, or protects them from their actions, authoritative parenting helps kids learn from the consequences of their behavior.

Being authoritative may mean setting strict limits and creating consequences that teach life lessons. Or it might involve letting kids face the natural consequences of their behavior. Either way, it's meant to ensure that children understand that you're willing to do whatever it takes to help them do better.

Examples With Teens

Authoritative parenting strategies are consistent, no matter a child's age. However, scenarios change from childhood into the teenage years. Below are a few examples of ways parents might use this parenting style with teens:

  • A parent discovers marijuana in a teen's room. The parent confiscates it and talks with their teen about the legal and health risks. They may get their teen into therapy.
  • A parent tells an 18-year-old that they must have a job or attend school to keep living at home.
  • A teen experiences withdrawal from nicotine after a parent throws away their vape. The parent refuses to replace it and doesn't give their child money to get them.
  • A teen skips their court-ordered community service. The parent allows the situation to unfold, so the child experiences natural consequences. 
  • A teen skips school. Parents empathize with their child's frustration when they fail classes or must repeat courses, but they do not bail their child out.

Examples With Younger Kids

While authoritative parenting is a good strategy with troubled teens, the best way to use it is consistently from when your kids are young. Here are some examples of how a parent might help a younger child be responsible for their behavior:

  • A 10-year-old forgets their soccer cleats for practice for the umpteenth time. Rather than bringing the cleats for the child, the parent allows the child to experience the natural consequences of not being prepared for practice.
  • A 12-year-old accidentally breaks their phone, and rather than replacing it, the parent tells them they will need to pay for a new one.
  • A parent tells their 11-year-old they need to get their chores done before dinner. Unfortunately, they didn't complete their chores on time, so instead of being allowed to go to the park with their friends after dinner, the child must stay home to complete their choices.

Summary

Authoritative parenting centers on cultivating a positive relationship between a parent and child and utilizes natural consequences to teach kids life lessons. As such, this style of parenting is instrumental with troubled teens.

Research shows that authoritative parenting produces the best outcomes for kids in comparison to other parenting styles. For example, kids parented in this way commonly have higher self-esteem, social skills, are more cooperative, and have better relationships with their parents.

A Word From Verywell

If you have a struggling teen, you may be feeling guilt or shame. But remember, teens from all backgrounds and family dynamics go through rough periods.

While there is no "quick fix" for getting teens through complicated emotions and situations, creating firm boundaries and enforcing them with love can help. The benefit is that your child will learn through natural consequences rather than punitive measures, which can preserve and even strengthen your relationship.

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  1. Michigan State University. Authoritative parenting style.

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