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What is Authoritarian Parenting? Does Tough Love Work?

When parents practice tough love parenting, they adopt a parenting style that psychologists call authoritarian parenting. Find out if this parenting style is right for your child.

In the 1960s, Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, defined three types of parenting styles​1​. About two decades later, using a two-dimensional framework​2​, Maccoby and Martin expanded this model into four main parenting styles: authoritative parenting, authoritarian parenting, permissive parenting and neglectful parenting.

What Is Authoritarian Parenting (Psychology Definition)

In the Baumrind / Maccoby & Martin framework, authoritarian parenting is a type of parenting style that is characterized by high demands but low responsiveness. Authoritarian parents require their children to meet high standards, yet they are cold and aloof to the child’s emotional needs.

tuff parents need to yells at child who covers his ears - two characteristics of authoritarian parents are that they are non-responsive to their child's needs and they require their kids to meet high standards.

The Characteristics Of Authoritarian Parenting Style

1. Authoritarian Parents are Demanding.

Authoritarian parents have many strict rules and very high standards. Many of these rules are in place to exert control over child’s behavior or activities, and children are expected to follow the rules from a young age.

Some rules are arbitrary, and some are never even explained – the children are just supposed to know and follow them.

When a child fails to comply, whether to an explicit rule or an implicit one, authoritarian parents believe that the child has done that out of either defiance or incompetence. Neither is acceptable in an authoritarian parent’s eyes.

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2. Authoritarian Parents are Cold and Non-Nurturing.

Authoritarian parents seldom show warmth towards their children. These parents are often quite cold, unkind and harsh.

When they are upset with their children, authoritarian parents are also more likely to yell or berate.

They use the term “tough love” to justify their unresponsiveness and mean attitudes towards their kids.

Some of these parents also withhold parental love when the kids are not meeting their expectations.

3. Authoritarian parents are controlling parents.

Authoritarian parents believe that they are the authority figures and that their kids should follow orders and show obedience to authority blindly without question.

Some authoritarian parents may exert control over every aspect of their children’s lives, from the ways the kids talk, to how they act at home or in public, what they wear, and what activities they participate in. They require children to be submissive in the parent-child relationship.

Authoritarian parents impose not only behavioral control but also psychological control over their children.

They don’t believe that children have the right or ability to make their own decisions. Children’s autonomous thinking is strongly discouraged. Kids are also discouraged from exploring or acting independently.

4. Authoritarian Parents Only Allow One-Way Communication.

Authoritarian parents rarely involve children in any decision making. They use reasons such as “because I said so” when they demand children to simply do as they’re told.

They do not seek or allow feedback from their children.

Any attempt to reason with parents is seen as talking back or a challenge to the parents’ authority.

Authoritarian parents expect children to be seen and not heard.

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5. Authoritarian Parents Tend to Use Harsh Punishment.

Authoritarian parents often use fear to control their kids. When children do not meet expectations of good behavior, the punishments or consequences can be harsh and stiff.

These parents are more likely to employ punitive measures to force kids into following rules. Punitive punishment include excessive time-outs, berating, shaming, or physical punishment (corporal punishment). Some authoritarian parents use psychologically controlling punishment, such as love withdrawal to punish.

Authoritarian parents focus on punishment over teaching or modeling desirable behavior. When taken to the extreme, the authoritarian approach can become an abusive parenting style.

6. Authoritarian Parents Are Less Agreeable

Agreeableness is a personality trait in the Big Five personality trait model.

Agreeable individuals are kind, sympathetic, cooperative, warm and considerate.

Studies have found that authoritarian parents tend to be less agreeable​3,4​. They are more antagonistic and unkind.

Child buries his face when authoritarian parent points at him tough love examples

Effects of Authoritarian Parenting on a Child

Although individual differences can affect a child’s development, studies have found that children of authoritarian parents generally have the following outcomes​5​:

  • Highly compliant and obedient at home and around their parents.
  • Tend to be unhappy.
  • Less independent than other children.
  • Lack self regulation – become hostile and aggressive under pressure.
  • Have anger issues and show aggressive behavioral problems outside the home, when the parents are not around​6​.
  • Some are overly shy or fearful around people.
  • Poor social skills.
  • Less likely to feel socially accepted by peers.
  • Poor academic performance​7​.
  • Low self-esteem​8​.
  • Less resilient and unable to bounce back after failure.
  • Less psychological flexibility and coping strategies​9​.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms​10​.
  • Higher risk for drinking, smoking, substance abuse, or mental health issues such as anxiety or suicide attempts, and more likely to suffer from major depression​11–15​.

Tough Love

Authoritarian parenting is prevalent in many countries, especially among the older generation. The newer generation parents start to recognize the harm authoritarianism can do. However, those who still want to use this approach to parenting try to portray it as an effective parenting method by calling it tough love, or old school parenting.

Tough love parenting is an example of authoritarian parenting.

Some authoritarian parents practice tough love parenting because they want to toughen up the child. They mistakenly believe that being harsh and mean to a child will make them strong.

Others use authoritarian parenting because they believe that being tough will instill discipline in the child, teaching the child how to obey authorities, and preventing them from making mistakes in the future and “ending up in jail”.

Some are also worried that if they are not being authoritarian, their children might “walk all over them”.

These uncompromising views are caused by the fact that authoritarian parents have more rigid views of the world​9​. They often think in either-or terms and there’s no middle ground.

Other tough love examples include believing that either they have complete control over their kids or the kids will completely rule the house and dominate them.

Parents who allow their kids to walk all over them are permissive parents. They are warm and nurturing, but they have no boundaries or do not consistently enforce them.

Permissive parenting does have its issues. But the opposite of permissive is not authoritarian.

The opposite of high-responsiveness and low demanding (permissive) is not low-responsiveness and high demanding (authoritarian).

The opposite of permissive is non-permissive! 

The problem with being permissive is not that the parents are warm and responsive. Research shows that responsive parents actually help children form secure attachment, which is beneficial.

The actual problem with permissive parenting is not setting limits or not enforcing them consistently.

Authoritative parenting style is a non-permissive parenting style that is both nurturing and has high standards, and is a much better parenting approach than authoritarian parenting.

Does Tough Love Work

On the surface, it seems logical that practicing tough love parenting will prepare kids to face tough situations. But this has been proven wrong in research:

A study was performed in Israel where 18-year-old men have to serve in mandatory military service. It was found that male adolescents who grew up in a non-nurturing environment coped and adapted worse in the tough military scenery than those who grew up in a nurturing household (Mayseless, et al., 2003).

~ Turning Tantrums Into Triumphs

Related: Difference Between Authoritative and Authoritarian Parenting

Tiger parent carries her cub in mouth - symbolizing tough "tiger mom parenting"

Tiger Parenting

Tiger parenting style is among examples of authoritarian parenting.

Although most studies conducted in western societies indicate that authoritarian parenting has negative effects on children, some studies have found contradictory results in school performance among other cultures such as African American, Hispanic, or Asian communities.

In fact, a 2011 Wall Street Journal article sparked a huge debate across America on this exact topic.

In the article, the author claimed that the Tiger Mom parenting in the Chinese culture was superior to “western” parenting style. She later retracted that claim citing it was a Wall Street Journal’s marketing tactic and supported the notion that tiger parenting was not a good parenting style. However, at that point, authoritarian parents were already convinced that was the best parenting style.

Unfortunately, a study in the Chinese University of Hong Kong (1998) supported this claim. That study showed that in Hong Kong, kids with authoritarian parents had better academic achievement than those with authoritative parents​16​.

So, is it possible that the authoritarian, rather than authoritative style, parenting style is indeed a better choice in certain culture?

Not really.

There are inconsistent results among different studies even in those cultures.

Some researchers have found that even in Asia, authoritarian parenting is linked to worse academic performance while authoritative parenting produces better academic outcomes​17​.

One Chinese present study on second graders shows that children with authoritarian parents are not only worse in academic achievement, but are also rated as poorer in social competence by their teachers. These children often show more aggression and are less accepted by peers.

Mental health issue is another problem children raised by Asian authoritarian parents face.

Harsh discipline, a common authoritarian practice, is linked to more depressive symptoms among Chinese American adolescents​18​.

Girl buries her face in palms and sits alone in classroom - detrimental effect of authoritarian parenting style definition

In Hong Kong, 54% of students aged 15 to 19 years old report suicidal ideation, compared to 36% of junior high and high school students in the United States​19,20​. This suicidal ideation is significantly associated with perceived authoritarian parenting, low parental warmth, high maternal over-control, negative child-rearing practices, and a negative family climate.

Need more proof?

Between 1996 and 2004, more than half of suicides (11 of the 20) at Cornell University were committed by students of Asian descent. During that period, only 14% of enrolled students were Asian or Asian American​21​.

Data from the Centers for Decease Control and Prevention has also found that among women aged 15-24, Asian American females have the highest suicide rates across all racial or ethnic groups​22​ in the US.

No research is known to link the suicides at Cornell or the female suicidal rate directly to parenting style. But from the overwhelming amount of testimonials, you can imagine the damages this type of upbringing has done to many Asian and Asian American children.

Final Thoughts on Authoritarian Parenting

Child abuse by physical maltreatment is highly associated with authoritarian parenting style​23​. This type of child maltreatment has a high risk of transferring from one generation to the next​24​. Although it’s not easy, the cycle of harsh parenting can be broken if the parent is determined to do so.


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