Authoritarian Parenting and Emotional Repression

by Latebloomer

I have a lot of respect for my dad. He’s thoughtful and generous to all of us. His constant reading makes him an interesting and well-informed conversationalist. He makes his life decisions very carefully, yet never looks down on me for making different decisions than him. Instead, he tells me all the time that he loves and misses me, and that he’s proud of who I’ve become. I feel so lucky to have him as my dad.

Unfortunately, we have not always gotten along so well. Less than ten years ago, our relationship had been almost completely destroyed thanks to the authoritarian parenting techniques of the fundamentalist Christian homeschooling culture. Authoritarian parenting forced both of us into roles that we were not at all suited for, with tragic results.

For my dad, authoritarian parenting caused him to see our relationship as a power struggle; maintaining his authority was his biggest responsibility and highest priority. After all, if we were calling the shots in our own lives, we would become self-indulgent and lack internal self-control. That would lead us to more dangerous “worldly” teenage rebellion against our parents and God. So in order not to fail at parenting, my dad had to be hyper-vigilant against giving up power to us kids. What an insane amount of responsibility to put on one person! And how difficult to create a positive relationship with that kind of dynamic: it’s impossible to mandate real respect and love! My dad began to crack under the pressure.

For me as a teen, authoritarian parenting very nearly reduced me to an empty shell of a person. I found that my opinions and emotions were sources of trouble and guilt. Anger or frustration–even just on my face–were signs of disrespect and lack of self-control. Questioning my parents’ decisions or expressing different opinions, even on trivial matters, were signs of rebellion. Even the simple act of lifting my eyebrows could get me in trouble. In order to survive, I had to bury my negative emotions and try to become more passive and less opinionated.

In addition to guarding my facial expressions and speech against “disrespect” and “rebellion”, I also had to hide many positive feelings. My parents’ preferred method of discipline when I was in my teens was to take away privileges. Anything that I had shown happiness or excitement about was a likely target. So, to protect things I cared about, I tried to stay detached. One technique that helped me care less about something was to focus on the negative about it. Unfortunately, it was hard to rekindle my excitement once my negativity had extinguished it, but at least it was easier to deal with the feelings of helplessness and disappointment.

At the worst point in my relationship with my dad, I went for several years without my dad smiling at me even one time. He spent long hours at work or locked in his room and tried to avoid talking to me or looking at me when we passed. But still, every night, my mom made me find him to say, “Goodnight Dad, I love you,” and stand there looking at the back of his head with no answer. Any time I protested this nightly tradition and expressed my hurt to my mom, she simply cautioned me not to let the “root of bitterness” spring up in my heart. So I did my best to bury my negative emotions, just like I saw my mom doing.

I was supposedly in the prime of my life, but I started to feel very old. My body was full of aches and pains, and I was constantly tired or dealing with a headache. Finally, at my mom’s urging, I went to see a doctor. I was caught off guard when the doctor asked, “Do you think you’re depressed?” “Oh my goodness, no!” I answered. When the doctor left the room, I burst into tears with no idea why. I finally decided that I must have been upset that my Christian witness was damaged since I wasn’t showing Jesus’ peace and joy on my face during my doctor’s appointment.

Looking back, it’s easy to identify that I was deeply depressed and incredibly emotionally repressed. But I didn’t interpret it that way at the time. I saw my depression as “deep spiritual sensitivity” that came from my desire to be perfect. And I saw my emotional repression as “true love”: by pretending I was never bothered and that I had no preferences, I thought I was being unselfish and putting the needs of everyone else before my own.

As I entered college and started to work through many of my social anxiety issues, I continued using the relational techniques that had helped me survive at home. I was passive; I went along with other people’s ideas and goals; I had no strong opinions or desires of my own. I was just there, a non-factor, grateful to be included.

The real change for me came through developing my relationship with my boyfriend/husband. Our long conversations helped me work through my pent up emotions and discover my opinions. On many occasions, he waited patiently even for 20 minutes, silently walking next to me with his arm around my shoulders, so I could finally express a basic opinion or feeling. At some point, I came uncorked, and we now have an entirely different challenge as my opinions and feelings come flying from left and right! In time, I’ll find balance.

Sorry, but I don’t agree with ___.
I felt really sad when you ____.
I’d really rather ____.
I don’t really enjoy ___.
In my opinion, ___.

These phrases may seem mundane to you, but to me they are priceless. Every time I use them, they remind me that I am a real and valuable person with my own identity, my own voice, my own choice. They make me feel empowered because I remember what it was like to try to live without them.

Discuss this post on the NLQ forum. Comments are also open below.

Latebloomer is on a journey away from the ideals she was raised with in the conservative homeschooling culture. Becoming a wife and mother has prompted her to re-evaluate her childhood experiences in an effort to avoid repeating those mistakes.  Her blog Past Tense Present Progressive is her place for sorting through her thoughts.

View all posts by Latebloomer!


NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

  • Former Patriarch’s Wife

    Love this post. I wish every pro-patriarchy parent could read it and take it to heart. The authoritarian style of parenting that the “Biblical Family” leaders promote is abusive, plain and simple. It is a recipe for damaging a young human’s natural (and God-designed) psychological development. :(

  • Renee

    Thank you for writing this. I’m glad to read the happy ending! I hope you’ll tell us sometime about how your dad came to see the light; it’s so good to hear that such a relationship can be healed.

  • http://coveredcanary.blogspot.com Pippi

    Oh grr I just posted my comment as a story submission. Aaaggghh I hate technology. Basically, I was just saying I can totally relate. Don’t have time to re-type it all now. :(

  • Calulu

    Don’t worry. I’ll transfer it all into comments in a few moments.

  • http://www.funkenwagnel.com Sharon @ Funken Wagnel

    Oop! I made a mistake and posted my comment in the ‘submit your story’ section, lol! My apologies.

    I can’t begin to imagine what it’d be like to have to hide every negative emotion from your face. Latebloomer, you are so brave to be able to tell your story. I was raised an atheist, but I really feel for anyone who has had a quiverful upbringing, and I honestly believe this blog must be helping thousands of people.

  • Alice

    I felt the same while growing up and I was raised in a home without any faith. When authoritarian parenting is done without love and without acknowledging individual personalities as a good thing, this is what happens. I remember discovering the freedoms of will you discuss when I got out from under my mother’s strictness without love.

  • ValiantBlue

    Wow, thanks so much for posting this. I had much of the same experience and am so glad for the discovery of your autonomy and value, latebloomer, as I am for my own. Keep telling your story.

  • Deven Kale

    I myself was raised in a patriarchal mormon family, with an experience much the same as yours. Unfortunately I still have that same relationship with my father now as you did back then. Every time I see him, there’s nothing but disappointment in his eyes. We rarely talk about anything worthwhile, and when we do it’s usually in disagreement, where he eventually just gives a great sigh and the conversation is over.

    Unfortunately, I never learned any other way to be, especially as a parent. I was the same terrible father to my children that he was to me. Even though me and my children are atheists, I still couldn’t get the idea out of my head that the father needs to be in control of his children, and any dissenting opinions were a form of rebellion and disrespect. I am no longer a father, and am living with my parents again. My emotions, whatever they were, are slowing going away again and I’m becoming the “zombie” that I once was.

    The point that I’m making in this post, is that the dangers of this type of parenting are far worse than a lot of people think. Just getting out of it yourself doesn’t mean that it’s over. For some people, such as myself, it stays with you no matter how hard you try to get away from it. Even though you may know how terrible it is, for some reason it just keeps going through you, and the only way to stop the cycle is to get out of it, no matter how painful that may be. This is just one of the reasons why this parenting style absolutely must end.

  • Ona

    I understand this post so much, and needed to thank you for writing it. My parents and I have come a long way since I ran as far and fast as I could from their home 24 years ago, but even still, I am sometimes reminded of the stifling, suffocating pain of my upbringing. Even still, when I oppose a piece of their “respect/honor your parents” dogma they decide to attempt to reimpose upon me– their 41 year old daughter– I get the message loud and clear that their love is conditional upon my “behaving” myself. AKA, that I take more care for their (really sensitive) feelings than they will ever do for mine. I’ve been ridiculously careful about the fragile emotional state of people much older than myself my whole life, and for the love of Maude, I hope I am not passing that along to my kids!

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  • anonymous

    Hey. I just bumped into your blog and surprisingly matched my feelings at this point. I am in an authoritarian parenting situation. been in it for 25 years now and i still live with my parents. A couple of years ago i dropped out of college. I had similar anxiety and problems expressing my opinions like you in campus. My father is the authoritarian one and my mother is a devout Christian and i think her belief has led her to the role of the enabler. My father is more or less a dictator. I have had to deal with A LOT of pent up emotions to the point of confusion. I was on anti-depressants for 6months but i don’t think it helped. The person i was seeing was a psychiatrist and his ways of treating me revolved less around therapy and more on medz. These two years have been out of school have been a sort of self-searching and though i am confident i have made progress, i don’t think i have fully recovered. It’s hard to measure your own progress. I have read a lot on the effects of living under such conditions and its impact on childhood development. I have no doubt that i am a product of its effects. With this conscious knowledge, i hope to improve myself and get myself out of the numbing pain i have been under.

    I resume college in a month or two and thus will be living with my parents for at least the next two years. It’s hard to believe but despite my age my parents(dad) still impose their views, opinions and directions on me with no regard to mine. Any contradiction on my part results in privileged being taken away such as my laptop. I should mention that i am an electronics and computer engineering undergrad. I have been a rebel for the better part of my adult life, got into alcohol and marijuana, so history isn’t on my side.

    My father came from a troubled family living in poverty and his dad died when he was very very young. My grandma, his mother, was strict and overbearing and would at times punish them by denying them food and kicking them out. I have ran away from home enough times ever since i was 7. Last year i moved out but moved back in after 6months. Mostly because i couldn’t support myself any more. My mom arbitrated my coming back home.

    To my point, having come to the realizations that i have, how do i continue to live through this in a way that i will not suffer any more and can actively pursue who i want to be and what i want to do with my life under my current situation?? I have had great success in my academics all through up until college when i think my pent up pain and emotions reached a critical level. I am ambitious and want to be successful. But, i always fear and in doubt. I perceive this to be my damaged confidence. I have trouble socializing unless am under the influence. Please, i would appreciate your take on this as you seem to have the benefit of retrospect.

    • http://www.pasttensepresentprogressive.blogspot.com Latebloomer

      Hello,
      That’s a really tough decision, continuing to live with your parents in order to finish college. I’d really encourage you to talk to a school counselor to see what options you have available to you for financial aid so that you don’t have to sacrifice your sanity for your education. Since you’re 25, you can qualify for financial aid and loans (through the FAFSA) that don’t take your parents’ income into account. Also, maybe this semester or next semester, you can find another college student or two that you can rent a house with; sharing the costs will make it more affordable, and it’s much cheaper than on-campus housing as well. I think that there are usually school listings of people looking for roommates; check at your school. And if necessary you can even take a little longer to graduate from school so that you can do more part-time work during the school year; that way you can afford to finish college without living with your parents.

      Living with your parents looks “free”, but you’re paying in other ways; is it worth it? Especially when you dad obviously values his control of you more than your educational success! And your mom loves her patriarchical religious ideals more than sticking up for your well-being! I remember how much that hurts and how maddening it is, and I’m so sorry that you’re still dealing with that. :(

      Yes, I’m really pushing for you to move out of your parents’ house–that’s because for me, I wasn’t able to make significant progress on discovering my own identity and becoming happier/healthier until I was out on my own. You have been really hurt by your dad’s abusiveness and your mom’s enabling, and as long as you’re living with them, they will probably keep adding to your hurt. You have to get away from the source of your injury in order to heal.

      The process of healing can feel a bit like a rollercoaster at times, but don’t give up! Even after I moved out, it took YEARS for me to feel ok most of the time. Be patient with yourself and try to surround yourself as much as possible with gracious and accepting people. Also, even though your first experience with a therapist didn’t seem helpful, I’d really recommend trying again. Sometimes colleges have counselors available for a reduced rate to talk to students, so maybe look into that!

      You sound like a really great and intelligent person, and I hope that you realize your potential and find the happiness you deserve!!

    • http://www.pasttensepresentprogressive.blogspot.com Latebloomer

      P.S. I’m sorry for the late reply! I definitely tried to reply to your comment several weeks ago, but just today I noticed that my reply had disappeared. So this is my second attempt :P . I really wish you all the best!

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  • Emily

    Wow. I bookmarked this page because it blew my mind how exactly this described my life. I too, was homeschooled by my Christian radical parents, and my dad who’s parenting style was completely authoritarian. Every rule was “Because I said so, dammit!” No explanations, no chance to voice your own feelings or opinions on anything. No warmth or affection. Every emotion that my siblings or I would express somehow got us in trouble, whether it was laughing too loudly, being hurt or upset, showing anger of any kind, showing fear, or any other expression you can think of. It was always “Quit down!” or “Stop your whining!” or “Knock off that attitude!” or “Stop being a baby!” There was never any concern or understanding.
    As a result, I eventually turned into this “shell” of a person who appeared to have no emotions. By the time I went to college, people seemed almost afraid of me, like I was some kind of sociopath. This KILLED my self esteem. I HATED expressing my own opinions in class, because I was so afraid of being ridiculed. I had no friends, and I felt like a nobody.
    By my junior year, I got away from my dads house, (my mother passed away at 16) and I really began to establish my own identity. Although I still feel I have a long way to go, I have come so far. However, whenever I stop into my dad’s house for a visit, I feel myself become stone cold. I immediately transform into that “shell” of a person I once was, and I can’t seem to prevent that from happening. It make me very sad to think that my dad will never know the true “me”. He doesn’t know who his daughter truly is, and the lively personality that she really has. The day he gets to know the real me, that is the day I know I’ve made it to where I want to be.