Fear-based parenting can affect your child’s development, mental health, and your relationship with them.
When you’re a parent, there are times when your child will do something that may upset or disappoint you. Maybe they’ll throw a tantrum in a store when you say “no” to buying them a toy they want or deliberately break a rule at home or school. Maybe they’ll tell you a lie or say something disrespectful to a family member.
While it’s perfectly OK and only human to get upset at your kid sometimes, it’s important to keep in mind that how you respond to your child in these moments can have a significant impact on their development, mental health, and, of course, your relationship with them.
This is especially true if your response is driven by fear or induces fear in your child to get them to comply with your wishes. If that’s the case, you might be practicing fear-based parenting.
“Fear-based parenting is when parents use power and control to try to get their kids to comply with expectations,” explains Dr. Stuart Ablon, a clinical psychologist and director of Think:Kids in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The idea behind fear-based parenting is that if children fear the consequences of not complying with our wishes, they will be more likely to do what we say,” he continues.
For example, fear-based parenting may include threats of a consequence if a child doesn’t comply with their parent’s wishes, such as a threat of:
- a time-out
- having a toy taken away
That’s why authoritarian parenting, a style of parenting first described by psychologist Diana Baumrind in the 1960s, can be a form of fear-based parenting because authoritarian parents often have strict rules and rely on punishment to make a child comply with their wishes.
“This type of parenting often comes out of a place of fear,” explains Carolyn Solo, a licensed clinical social worker from Pennsylvania who specializes in parenting and perinatal mental health. “For example, [authoritarian] parents may refuse to allow a teenager to go out with friends unsupervised because they fear that their child may be exposed to drinking or drugs.”
But the authoritarian parenting style is not the only kind that can be fear-based. Any parent who tries to protect their child from the dangers of the world by scaring them away from doing particular things is essentially practicing fear-based parenting.
“Fear-based parenting is parenting from a place of fear and anxiety, not curiosity and growth,” explains Solo. “Fear-based parents make decisions based on feared future outcomes or feared opinions of others.”
For example, Solo says, a parent using fear-based techniques may not allow their child to dress in accordance with their preferred gender identity out of fear that other parents or teachers may judge them for allowing it.
Fear-based parenting can have several effects on a child’s development and their relationship with others — including the very parents who are trying to protect them. Here are some of the consequences of fear-based parenting.
It prevents learning through mistakes
For example, say a parent forbids their child from playing at the playground because they’re afraid their child will fall and get hurt.
“This inhibits the child’s opportunity to not only experience joyful play, which is essential for development, but also the child’s opportunity to make mistakes and learn through natural consequences,” Solo explains.
“Children raised in this parenting style will never experience tough or uncomfortable situations simply because their parents are too fearful to let them experience those kind of situations,” explains Gayle Weill, a social worker licensed in Connecticut and New York.
“But children need to experience difficult situations so that they can learn, grow, and gain the confidence to know that they have the ability to overcome and achieve,” she adds.
It can impact their mental health and resilience
“Children may be fearful of making their own gut decisions, which can potentially lead to decreased self-confidence, anxiety, or lack of resilience,” explains Dr. Danine Dean, a licensed psychologist from California.
“Fear-based parenting [often] results in children with low self-esteem, difficulties in friendship and romantic relationships, poor decision making skills, and difficulties with risk assessment.”
- eating and behavioral disorders
- alcohol misuse
It can lead to rebellion
Fear-based parenting correlates with higher rates of child rebellion, Solo explains, because the kids rebel against the extreme control that is contrary to a child’s growing need for autonomy as they grow up and discover the world.
It can damage the parent-child relationship
“Fear-based parenting can breed anger and mistrust,” explains Ablon.
Over time, this lack of trust can drive a wedge between you and your child, causing your relationship to become more distant as your child grows up and begins making their own choices.
You can try a few positive parenting techniques instead of fear-based parenting.
Lead with compassion and love
“Begin with connection,” advises Solo. “If a child is exhibiting an unsafe or undesirable behavior, a parent’s role should be connective, not reactive.”
So, rather than yelling “Listen to me!” or “Do what I say!” Solo suggests considering first making eye contact and talking slowly and gently to your child by naming what they’re feeling and offering a corrective but supportive solution.
For example, if your child gets upset when it’s time to leave their friend’s birthday party, you could bend down and say, “I know it’s hard to say goodbye to friends. You had a great day, and it’s tough to leave when you’re having fun.” Then you could gently remind them of the next time they’ll see their friend.
Set clear expectations and logical consequences
“Effective disciplinary strategies focus on setting clear and appropriate expectations and then working together with our children to understand what is getting in their way if they [find it difficult] to meet those expectations,” explains Ablon.
It’s OK to set rules, for example, but it’s important to ensure they know these rules ahead of time. Then try to be consistent and reasonable in how you enforce those rules.
Help your child meet your expectations
Say your child takes a toy from another child. Rather than shaming them for being mean, try to remind them of your rule not to take from others. Then you can follow up and validate that it’s hard to share sometimes.
For example, you could say, “I see you really want to play with that toy, but that child has it. It can be frustrating and hard to wait, but I need you to give it back to them and wait your turn. I can play with you while you wait.”
“Collaborating with our children to help address their concerns alongside ours also has the benefit of helping our children practice and develop a whole host of problem-solving skills that will serve them well throughout their lives,” says Ablon.
Teach them how to calm down
If your child gets upset or reacts by throwing a fit or tantrum, it’s a good idea to work with them on calming strategies, such as:
- counting to 10
- taking deep breaths
- talking about what they’re feeling
“It often makes more sense to help a child learn how to self-regulate and deal with big feelings rather than punish the child,” says Weill. “Children need to be taught how to calm themselves down when they are upset. That isn’t common sense that they are born with. A parent can teach this skill.”
Listen to them, even when you disagree
If your child asks to do something that you think is dangerous, consider asking them open-ended questions about why they want to do it. Try to encourage them to open up to you about their desires while you truly hear them out.
This can help you be more mindful in your parenting and help your child feel heard. It may even allow you to develop a closer bond. Research from 2014 also suggests that listening and validating your child’s feelings can help them develop self-control.
Parenting can be difficult sometimes — and it can be hard to not let your own fear get in the way of how you raise your child and protect them from harm.
“Parenting can feel so vulnerable and scary when we feel like we are doing it all alone,” says Dean. But that’s why if you’re finding that your own anxieties and fears are causing you to be restrictive, it can be helpful to question why you’re reacting in this way.
Instead of letting that fear lead your parenting, consider getting out and talking with other parents. It can also be helpful, says Dean, “to go to therapy and learn about how your own parenting experience in your family of origin is impacting how you show up as a parent.”