What Parenting Styles Set Kids Up for Emotional Abuse? | #parenting

Beyarslan and Uzer, authors of a recent paper in the journal Current Psychology (2020) make an important point that our understanding of how children become vulnerable to emotional abuse is limited in spite of the importance of such abuse. Useful work on how parenting approaches may lead to narcissism in children implicates factors such as leniency, caring, abuse, neglect, and others in the development of different types of narcissism.

While research has looked at the relationship between how children are parented and their risk for future physical abuse and domestic violence, there is scant work on how parenting affects the risk of getting into emotionally abusive relationships.

Emotional abuse, authors note, is the most common form of abuse, with ample negative consequences including increased risk for depression and suicide, damage to one’s sense of self, loss of autonomy, and increased tendencies toward pathological dependency, social isolation, and ongoing victimization.

Emotional abuse attacks one’s very sense of self, and we are at risk for abuse when our developmental environment leads us to experience such relationship dynamics as familiar—let alone normal.

Parenting Styles, Forms of Control, and Permissiveness

Experts (e.g. Baumrind, 1971) have identified four distinct patterns of parenting: Authoritarian, Authoritative, Permissive/Indulgent, and Permissive/Neglectful. There are three important dimensions of parental interpersonal behavior which underpin parenting style: permissiveness, behavioral control, and psychological control. These in turn are associated with core tendencies around responsiveness and demandingness.

Authoritative parenting has been associated with positive outcomes. Authoritative parents balance warmth and responsiveness with clear boundaries and lower permissiveness. They exert appropriate control to scaffold child development, focusing on firmly guiding appropriate behavior, rather than trying to control the child’s mind via psychological control and being emotionally intrusive. This allows the child to develop a strong sense of self based in love, learn appropriate self-control and social boundaries, with room to develop psychologically. Children raised with this style tend to be “responsible, self-reliant, and assertive.”

Authoritarian parenting is characterized by high demand and lower responsiveness. Harshness is common, leading the child to become accustomed to negative emotions in close relationships, in the absence of responsiveness. It’s my way or the highway. Authoritarian parents are insufficiently encouraging and may be over-protective, exercising exaggerated behavioral control, and often trying to get inside their kids’ heads to control their very thoughts and feelings. The children tend to be “distrustful, discontent, and withdrawn.”

Permissive parents, on the other hand, exercise inadequate behavioral control, and their children may fail to develop self-control. Permissive parenting comes in two flavors: indulgent and neglectful. Permissive/indulgent parenting stands in contrast to authoritarian parenting, with inadequate control but high responsiveness. Permissive/neglectful parenting, on the other hand, contrasts with authoritative parenting, with a lack of control and a lack of responsiveness. Children of permissive parents tend to be “less explorative, self-reliant, and self-controlled.”

Correlates of Emotionally Abusive Adult Relationships

Beyarslan and Uzer, taking into consideration how parenting affects adult emotional development, set out to study how parental warmth, behavioral control, and psychological control correlate with adult emotionally abusive relationships. 

Using a survey model, they recruited 230 students, about 60 percent women, average age of about 20 years, all with a history of being in a romantic relationship for at least 6 months. The majority (66 percent) were currently in a relationship at the time of the study, on average 2 years in duration. They completed various self-report measures including the Parenting Styles Scale, the Earlier Abuse Experience Information Form, and the Emotional Abuse Questionnaire.

It is important to note that this is cross-sectional, correlational research based on self-report. While intriguing, prospective studies of actual parenting environment, following children into adulthood, are required to determine predictive, causal effects.

Using statistical analysis, they developed a model relating parental warmth, behavioral control, and psychological control. Generally, these factors together account for 15 percent of the risk for emotional abuse in their adult relationships. Parental warmth and behavioral control offset the negative impact of psychological control and reduced the correlations with emotional abuse. High psychological control associated with emotional abuse only when behavioral control was low. Moderate to high parental warmth, to an extent, protected against the negative effects of low behavioral control and high psychological control. 

There were also differences between maternal and paternal parenting impact. Fathers’ psychological control predicted emotional abuse, whereas mothers’ psychological control was buffered by other factors. Study authors point out that in this Turkish sample, cultural differences may account for these findings, as fathers and mothers in this sample are expected to have traditional roles of, respectively breadwinner and primary caretaker. Research suggests that parenting impact may be gender-independent when cultural factors are taken into consideration (e.g. via a common “parental caregiving neural network“).

Take-Home Messages

This research highlights the critical importance of psychological control. All other factors equal, when parents violate psychological boundaries in an attempt to control the inner world of their children, they are setting them up to be vulnerable to abusive future relationships. Psychological control of others means gaslighting, making others feel ashamed of their own valid feelings and thoughts, using guilt and blame to turn others against themselves and manipulate them, and even sadistically and exploitatively “mess with their heads” for parents high on dark personality traits. 

Fortunately, the negative impact of psychological control may be partly offset by healthy patterns, including warm responsiveness and appropriate behavioral boundary-setting. While it is beyond the scope of the present study, one wonders what happens with extremes of parental warmth and behavioral control, coupled with high levels of psychological control.

Based on clinical experience, this pattern comes up with two parents who either have very different parenting styles with the same child, or when one parent has mental health issues leading to going back and forth between being loving and abusive. Without predictable parenting, inner conflict and cognitive dissonance reign, self-development is fragmented, and unpredictability may undermine personality coherence and stability, making adult relationships even more challenging.

Parents, parenting experts, and those seeking to understand emotional abuse in their own lives gain from understanding the relationship between responsive parenting, behavioral control, and psychological control. Critically, here is a key distinction between behavioral and psychological control. While firm-but-fair behavioral control encourages healthy development, intrusive, reality-bending psychological control inclines children toward future abuse, especially in the absence of protective factors.

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