Parenting Styles in a Family Law Context

This article first describes traditional concepts about parenting styles, and then reports a study of parenting styles that are seen in a family law context.


Researchers distinguish different broad approaches for raising children called parenting styles.  Parenting styles have been shown to influence a child’s adjustment in the teenage and adult years.

Following Diana Baumrind, a distinction is made between two broad dimensions of parenting:

  • demands from a parent, from demanding to undemanding
  • responsiveness of a parent, from responsive to unresponsive

Combing the two dimensions gives four different parenting styles as summarised in Table 1 and as explained below.

Table 1.  Traditional Parenting Styles



Authoritative Style

Authoritative parents both are responsive to their child and set demands for their child.  Authoritative parents monitor their child and know what the child is doing, and they provide both positive and negative feedback to the child so that the child learns standards expected by the parent.

Authoritative parents:

  • know how to calm their child when the child is distressed
  • teach their child to be self-reliant within clear limits that are set by the parent
  • help the child to understand the impact of their behaviour on others
  • encourage their child to make choices within boundaries, and to predict the likely impact of their choices for themselves and others
  • encourage their child to regulate their own emotions, and teach appropriate ways for their child to express frustrations
  • when a child questions a rule, the parent explains the purpose of the rule in terms of likely consequences, and does not just insist on compliance
  • allows an older child to express opinions before making a final decision that will affect the child
  • respects the child by listening when the child expresses opinions on any topic, without anger
  • adjust expectations according to the child’s age and skills.


Permissive Style

Permissive parents are reluctant to restrict their child, so they set few if any limits, and are slow to give directions.  Permissive parents emphasise the feelings of their children, and are reluctant to upset their child.  Permissive parents provide little discipline or are lenient and indulgent.  Permissive parents state few expectations as they want to be emotionally close to their children, or to be friends rather than parental or authority figures.

Permissive parents:

  • want to be nurturing so they give the child what the child demands, without asking for the child to do things in return
  • accept all behaviour from their children, and do not teach the child to control their impulses or to be patient and considerate
  • give in if the child causes a commotion
  • make threats but often do not implement the threatened action
  • are often protective towards their child, and avoid exposing their child to adversity and to events that are likely to distress the child.


Authoritarian Style

Parents who use the authoritarian style adhere strongly to rules and emphasise compliance with rules.  Authoritarian parents expect a child to know rules and emphasise use of physical punishment for noncompliance, including routine use of harsh punishment such as yelling and corporal punishment.

Authoritarian parents:

  • continue to use physical consequences when a child has progressed to a stage of being motivated by discussion and by social approval
  • often worry about misbehaviour, and maintain strict controls or keep a tight rein, expecting that the child will misbehave if they ease up
  • are slow to explain reasons for rules, and do not tolerate a child questioning rules.


Disengaged Style

Parents who use the disengaged parenting style are detached from and disinterested in their child, and do not either set expectations or respond emotionally to their child.   Disengaged parents provide for their child’s basic practical needs but overlook the child’s emotional needs.  Disengaged parents may pay so little attention to interactions with their child that they often deal with matters inconsistently by responding according to the parent’s own moods rather than responding to the needs of the child.





Different concepts are used to examine parenting patterns when parents have separated as the emphasis is on the level of cooperation between the parents, or on co-parenting.

Family Law Act

The Family Law Act of Australia was amended in 2006 to encourage both parents to remain involved in parenting their children after separation.  Two main amendments were introduced to the Family Law Act:

These legal requirements have an impact on concepts that describe parenting style.


Australian Institute of Family Studies

A study of separated families by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (2009) found four common parenting patterns after a couple had separated:

  • 40% of parents continue to cooperate in their parenting roles with minimal support
  • 22% of parents experience difficulty in cooperating one year after their separation, but are assisted to resume cooperative parenting after receiving professional input,
  • 19% of parents continue to expose their children to ongoing severe arguments after two years, and these are called high conflict parents
  • in 19% of cases one parent disengages from parenting.



Family Law Courts in Australia recognise two types of co-parenting arrangement that are adequate for children:

  • collaborative parenting where both parents follow very similar practices in their households so that the child is required to make few adjustments when moving between households, and
  • parallel parenting where parents set different rules for a child and follow different practices in each household, and the parents communicate about their practices and respect each other’s practices, and help the child to make adjustments when moving between the households.

Family Law Courts disapprove of three practices following separation:

  • undermining parenting where one parent frequently criticises reasonable parenting practices that are used in the other household,
  • not-communicating parenting where parents do not communicate directly about their parenting practices, leaving children to pass on messages between the parents,
  • intrusive parenting where one parent presses a child to report on events that occur in the other household.



A study was made of parenting styles used in cases that came before Family Law Courts in Australia.

The first 270 cases summarised in Complexfamilies were reviewed, involving 540 individual parents.  Descriptors of parenting practices were assigned by the author based on reports by family assessors or judges about parenting behaviours.


Table 1 shows the descriptors of parenting styles used to summarise practices by parents who had a case before a Family Law Court, together with the frequency each parenting style was assigned.

Table 1.  Frequency of Parenting Styles

Parenting StylePercent


Table 1 shows that 11 categories were used to describe parenting styles of couples who had a case before a Family Law Court.  Overall a Family Law Court drew attention to the parenting style used by one or other parent in 22.5% of the cases.

Table 1 shows the different parenting styles in decrease order of frequency.

Definitions of parenting styles are given in an Appendix, based on information provided about the case.


The study found that a range of parenting styles arise in cases that are dealt with by Family Law Courts, with more variety than is encapsulated in the traditional concepts to describe parenting style.

It is proposed that it is beneficial to refer parents with a deficient parenting style to a skilled therapist who is able to help the parent to improve their parenting style to improve communication between separated parents.


APPENDIX: Definitions of Parenting Styles

The following definitions are provided of parenting styles:

  • Authoritarian, as defined above.
  • Dependent where the parent encourages the child to provide a high level of emotional support for the parent, reversing the usual pattern where a parent gives emotional support to the child, and increasing the risk of parentification.
  • Disengaged, as defined above.
  • Emotional where a parent expresses a high level of negative emotion, and the child becomes distressed on observing the parental distress.
  • Insightless where the parent is unable to identify the likely impact on a child of the parent’s actions.
  • Intrusive where a parent pressures a child to pass on information about events that occur in the other household.
  • Permissive, as defined above.
  • Protective where a parent avoids exposing a child to usual adversities, and over-protects the child instead of teaching the child to use safety skills that are normal for a child of the same age.
  • Self-centred where a parent focuses on meeting their own needs to the exclusion of the child’s needs, or the parent does not prioritise a child’s needs.
  • Undermining where a parent is more focused on creating conflict with the other parent by reducing a child’s respect for the other parent, rather on reaching a joint decision that is in the best interests of the child, or where a parent gives priority to winning rights than to the best interests of a child.