Monday, May 12, 2014

Differing Parenting Styles, Why Some Work Better

So, in putting this post together in my head, Maren Schmidt over at Kids Talk Blog ( just happened to post part of what I was going to write, about the three different levels to the brain (amygdala, limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex). She did a great job explaining in, so I have copied her post and put it here for you to read. A shortcut: the amygdala asks the question "Am I safe?", the limbic system asks "Am I loved", and the prefrontal cortex asks "Am I learning?". You cannot get to the higher levels of operation (limbic system, then prefrontal cortex) unless the lower levels (amygdala and limbic system) needs are being met. What I want to expand on is where parenting styles play into these three levels of the brain.

There are three basic parenting styles permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative. From Psychology Today (

The Four Parenting Styles

  1. Authoritarian Parenting
    In this style of parenting, children are expected to follow the strict rules established by the parents. Failure to follow such rules usually results in punishment. Authoritarian parents fail to explain the reasoning behind these rules. If asked to explain, the parent might simply reply, "Because I said so." These parents have high demands, but are not responsive to their children. According to psychologist Diana Baumrind, who during the early 1960s,  conducted a study on more than 100 preschool-age children (Baumrind, 1967), these parents "are obedience- and status-oriented, and expect their orders to be obeyed without explanation" (1991).

  2. Authoritative Parenting
    Like authoritarian parents, those with an authoritative parenting style establish rules and guidelines that their children are expected to follow. However, this parenting style is much more democratic. Authoritative parents are responsive to their children and willing to listen to questions. When children fail to meet the expectations, these parents are more nurturing and forgiving rather than punishing. Baumrind suggests that these parents "monitor and impart clear standards for their children’s conduct. They are assertive, but not intrusive and restrictive. Their disciplinary methods are supportive, rather than punitive. They want their children to be assertive as well as socially responsible, and self-regulated as well as cooperative" (1991).

  3. Permissive Parenting
    Permissive parents, sometimes referred to as indulgent parents, have very few demands to make of their children. These parents rarely discipline their children because they have relatively low expectations of maturity and self-control. According to Baumrind, permissive parents "are more responsive than they are demanding. They are nontraditional and lenient, do not require mature behavior, allow considerable self-regulation, and avoid confrontation" (1991). Permissive parents are generally nurturing and communicative with their children, often taking on the status of a friend more than that of a parent.
So, what does parenting style have to do with levels of brain development? 

Well, it turns out that that the children of permissive parents are generally operating at the amygdala level of the brain. They are not sure of their safety and well-being, so they cannot move to higher levels of operation. Children of permissive parents often rank low self-regulation, have problems with authority and perform poorly in school. They also rank low in happiness, ironic when this parenting style often results from a parent's desire to keep the child always "happy". Dr. Montessori called this type of parenting "abandonment."

Children of authoritarian parents parents operate at the limbic system of the brain. While they know they are safe, they are not sure that they are loved. These children also rank low in happiness, as well as self-esteem and social competence. In Montessori this is the second level of obedience, “The second level is when the child can always obey, or rather, when there are no longer any obstacles deriving from his lack of control. His powers are now consolidated and can be directed not only by his own will, but by the will of another.” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, 1964). This level is when a child operates based on another person's will.

Children of authoritative parents operate as the prefrontal cortex level. They are happy, capable, and successful. It turns out that children NEED firm boundaries to function at their best level. Otherwise, they just aren't sure if they are safe. On the other hand, they need those boundaries enforced in a respectful manner. Dr. Montessori called this the third level of obedience: when the child “responds promptly and with enthusiasm and as he perfects himself in the exercise, he finds happiness in being able to obey.” (Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, 1967). The child responds this way because of the love, trust, and respect s/he has for the adult. They obey to make themselves happy, not to please the adult.

What type of parenting style do you have? If not authoritative, what changes can you make to make your style more authoritative?

Learning to control impulses is an important task for our children, and all of us, to learn.  Until our children learn to control urges to hit, kick, punch, pinch, bite, spit, name call and more, we’ll see all those behaviors emerge when life becomes overwhelming.

How is self-control established?  Let’s look at the young child’s brain.  Our brains are perhaps best viewed as three brains in one.

Our reptilian brain (cerebellum) takes in all sensory information and handles issue of basic survival, instincts and nonverbal communication, as well as autonomous body functions.  If the reptilian brain senses a threat to our safety, instinct for fight or flight takes over our thinking.

The next brain is the old-mammalian or limbic system, referred to also as our emotional brain. If the reptilian brain senses a threat, the limbic system is flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone, and the ability to tap into the thinking part of our brains, the neo-cortex (or new mammalian brain), is short circuited.  The amygdala, the part of the limbic system that regulates emotional and allows us to reach into our memory and previous learning, shuts down. 

When the reptilian brain senses that life is safe and calm, the limbic system is flooded with a different kind of neurotransmitter, GABA (gamma-aminobutrylic acid) which allows the limbic system to connect with the neo-cortex, allowing the connection to the prefrontal lobes, the place where the executive functions of planning, decision making and understanding consequences happen. 

In order to learn effectively and control our impulses, the reptilian, the old-mammalian, the new mammalian and the prefrontal cortex need to be in a state of calm.

For a two-year-old the reptilian and old mammalian brain are the most active, with the new mammalian brain getting more function as language and experience develops.

The three-year-old with good language skills begins to be able to tap into the prefrontal cortex and to begin thinking ahead and planning.

The two-year-old is happily playing with some blocks when three-year-old big sister comes and knocks them down.  Since the neo-cortex is not highly active in the two-year-old, the emotional and reptilian brain reacts instinctually.  A hit.  A push.  A scream.  The two-year-old body is awash with stress hormones that shut off the possibility of logical thought, or learning from the situation.

It is the adult who must act as the neo-cortex and the prefrontal cortex for the child by removing the child from the situation in a calm way until the stress hormones can calm and the reptilian brain senses safety again.

As language become stronger in the older child we can use language to help calm the different brain functions and help develop the prefrontal cortex.  After the children involved in an incident have calmed down we can discuss what happened.

To gather details we can ask what happened. We can name the feelings.  We can offer alternatives.  We can offer a dress rehearsal with role-playing. 

Let’s take our block-building incident.  After allowing some time to calm down, we ask what happened.  For the two-year-old we ask yes /no questions that can be answered nonverbally with a nod or shake of the head.

Tell the story. As we gather details we tell the story.  “Sam was playing with the blocks and had built a tower.  Brett came over and knocked down the tower.  Sam got hit in the head with a block.  That hurt.   Sam bit Brett.  That hurt.  Brett hit Sam.  That hurt.  I took Sam to sit with me in the rocking chair.”

Give the feelings a name.  To help connect the emotional brain with the neo-cortex, name the emotions.  “I feel sad that Sam and Brett got hurt.  Sam, you look sad.  Brett, you look sad.”

Come up with alternatives. “What could we do differently? We need to be kind to each other and not bother other people’s things or activities. If Brett wanted to knock down a tower, he should build his own. If Brett bothers your things or activity, instead of biting or hitting you could say, stop.  Can you say, stop, please?  Doing your own activity is a better choice than bothering others. Saying stop is a better choice than hurting someone.”

Practice.  “Let’s practice.  I’m building a tower and Brett wants to knock it down.  Brett what could you do instead?  Sam, what could I say to Brett?  Yes. Stop, please.  Using our words is a better choice that hurting each other.”

Until our children’s brains and bodies calm, the amygdala makes them do it.  Until calm arrives, be your child’s prefrontal cortex.

Additional Resources:

Conscious Discipline:
Jill Vetstein's Nurturing Parents and Teachers:


  1. Growing a kid means a lot; we need high level of dedication, determination, faith and patience. But in order to get success in parenting we used to follow the footsteps of experts and experienced persons. Parenting is never been as easy task for human being; but with proper amount of faith and dedication we proved the impossible part into possible. From here we learn some important lesson on parenting and I hope while implementing this we are able to be a good parent.

  2. there should be no criteria that how someone should raise there child, no doubt its very hard to raise child but just be joyful to them, spread love in the atmosphere that's it .Anyway a debt of gratitude is in order of sharing important suggestion on parenting.