Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Family Dictators

How authoritarian parents cause their children long-term harm.

Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

In the authoritarian personality literature, which arose in the aftermath of WWII and tried to make sense of Hitler and his followers, a distinction was made between authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers.

The distinction hinged on the idea that authoritarian followers, while as aggressive as the leaders they followed, were more submissive, conventional, and religious than their leaders and had less of a need to dominate and control others and to exert power.

In my investigation of authoritarians in the family, it appears to me that this distinction doesn't hold that much water.

Family dictators who may in the political arena be authoritarian followers are, in fact, authoritarian leaders at home. The only difference between an authoritarian father or mother and an authoritarian leading a nation is his or her reach. They are the same sort of person.

When we get a clear picture of the extent to which so-called authoritarian followers are actually authoritarian leaders behind closed doors, we begin to see that they are not following, as sheep follow, but rather striding side-by-side with someone who represents them and who is their mirror image. They aren't followers but brothers- and sister-in-arms: That is, they are comrades.

If you look at some mild-mannered woman who strongly supports an authoritarian leader, you might see her as the quintessential follower, someone who is being manipulated and exploited. But you may be fooled by her mild-mannered demeanor. Underneath, she could have the same clenched-teeth, clenched-fist attitude that the dictator she is following has.

I have seen this reported over and again by respondents from all over the world, from every socioeconomic class, from every culture, and from every religion, who describe their mother as the mildest of women out in the world, say at civic affairs and at religious functions, or their father as the most charming of creatures among his friends and peers. But the same parent is a vicious tyrant at home.

Once we get clearer that an authoritarian leader isn't leading an army of sheep, but is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with an army of like-minded bullies, that makes it much easier to see that our societal task isn't educating authoritarian followers, as if they were ignorant or oblivious, but rather defeating a veritable army of family dictators.

My particular interest in all this is in how family dictators harm their children. Because they display all of the features of the authoritarian personality, including an abiding need to punish, shame, ridicule, bully, and intrude, they terrorize their children, who have zero defenses against the bully with whom they are forced to live. "Living with a family dictator" is not among the long list of adverse childhood experiences known to cause lifelong difficulties—but it should be.

Here is one abridged report from the countless reports I receive:

"Hi Eric,

I don't really know how to start this. It's my first time expressing my thoughts about this matter to someone, let alone writing my feelings down. I am a very private person, so not even my closest friends know about any of this.

I guess what brought me to your writings is the most recent event in our house, which led me to search if I am all alone in this world, or if perhaps there are others like me, facing the brutality of an unjust, authoritarian dictator, who also happens to be the person partially responsible for giving me life: my father.

I don't know how to begin describing him. He lives to boss us, his children, around. He doesn't work, he doesn't practice any hobbies or have any real friends, so he rarely leaves the house. All he does is sit in front of the television for hours on end and butt into our lives, coming up with creative ways to make us miserable.

And he can get so creative with his verbal abuse. He is so intelligent when it comes to knowing exactly the right thing to say to cause the most damage, the most pain, just by using words. Having one of these interactions with him leaves me restless, weak, and hurt for days.

We never raise our voices to him. We respect him out of fear, that fear which is the result of years of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. He would never in a million years admit if he is wrong about something, and he would never apologize. He is always right, and everyone else is wrong.

He justifies it with his version of the truth. He does not accept others' thoughts; he does not accept the idea of independence for me or any of my siblings. We are all in our late 20s and early 30s, yet he still treats us as if we are teenagers. He still talks to us as if we are kids that need to be reprimanded. He has this psychotic control over us.

It's not normal. I know it's not normal. I would not be surprised if he turns out to be mentally ill. I often think about how I can escape this. How I can leave this house, leave his grip. On my darker days, I wish he wouldn't be alive anymore. And I am generally a positive, happy person. So, having these thoughts terrifies me. How can I continue to pretend that I like him when, in fact, sometimes I can't even stand the sight of him? What can I do?"

Historically, dictators could only be dealt with through force. They never resigned of their own accord, changed their ways of their own accord, or saw the light of their own accord. They had to be removed.

Family dictators can't be dealt with in the same way. They can't be removed. This makes for an intolerable, impossible situation that, as my respondents tell me, can only be dealt with in one way: by literally escaping.

If you are living with a family dictator, there are things you can try to do to improve your situation, like finding allies inside and outside of the family, reporting physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse, standing up to the bullying (sometimes a bully will suddenly wilt, but more often he won't), staying away from home as much as possible, staying out of the way as much as possible, avoiding behaviors that trigger brutality, etc.—all of which are likely to only help a little. What is likely to help the most is getting physically far away.

You can't change a dictator: not one who holds political office and not one who is running—and ruining—your family.

More from Psychology Today

More from Eric R. Maisel Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today