What Is Tough Love?

Written by fatherfrank  |  05. August 2005

What is "tough love?" Much has been written about this two word phrase. Some will say that tough love saved their son or daughter. Others will say it is the most heartless concept on the planet.
However, in fact, what really is " tough love?" A sizeable group of people define it as a hard-nosed, rather rigid way of forcing people you love who are engaged in negative behavior to confront their destructive behavior and hopefully change. Those critical of this definition of tough love believe that it is a cold and unfeeling approach to someone's troubles.
There are other advocates of "tough love" who believe it is a powerful strategy that empowers people to change and grow. These folks define this concept as a positive form of loving, where one does not enable the troubled person to remain stuck in his or her difficulties. It demands unconditional loving with clear boundaries and the willingness to be strong when the person in trouble attempts to manipulate and use you.
This kind of tough love sometimes demands that you take some difficult actions for the sake of the troubled person. It is not about abandoning him or her, or turning your back on the person. It is really about genuine loving.
When someone is stuck in a destructive cycle of living, sometimes it is easier to enable him or her rather than empower him or her.
When we enable someone, we rarely hold them accountable or confront them with their negative choices or behaviors. We mask our enabling by calling it loving because we don't want to hear our loved ones "talk trash" about us or accuse us of not really caring.
Empowering a troubled loved one with tough love is forcing the person to be accountable for his or her choices and decisions and being very clear that there are serious consequences if they make certain choices.
Failing to hold someone accountable, especially for destructive choices, is not loving him or her, but rather is further enabling them to possibly hurt themselves forever.
Raising teenagers and young adults today is a challenging adventure. The social rules that were once cast in cement change like the wind. Too many parents cave in to the peer pressure when it comes to setting difficult standards for their children. They don't want to be the bad guys. For some, there is more of an emphasis on becoming their teenager's friend rather than staying focused on being a parent.
Being a parent today means being on the firing line constantly. You have to be open and willing to set difficult boundaries and at times say no and mean no! It is not a dirty word.
"Tough love" does not mean being cold or harsh. It means being clear, consistent and tenacious, even when it is hard and difficult.
JR is twenty-four and is a heroin addict. He was born into a loving family. He has an older sister. His parents are still together. There is a history of addiction in his extended family.
He grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood. His parents worked hard to give him everything he ever wanted. In high school, he was academically below average because he was lazy. Athletically, he was a star. His athletic ability and his charm were the gifts that got him through - and ultimately he got through school by the skin of his teeth.
In junior high school, he started smoking weed. For the most part, it did not interfere with his home life. Back then, his parents were nave and didn't notice his behavior. By his sophomore year in high school, he found pot smoking to be boring, so he started to drink and experiment with other street drugs.
In junior year, he got caught in school with some illegal stuff. Because he was an athlete and was well liked, ultimately he got a slap on the wrist. The principal called his parents and urged them not to be too harsh with JR because he was a "really good boy." They agreed and did little to nothing. They just conveyed that they were very disappointed.
By the end of senior year, JR was drinking regularly. When his parents asked him about it, he lied. If it was his intention to get drunk, he would ask to sleep out. They only caught on when a parent called to inform them that their son had gotten drunk with JR in their house without parental supervision. His parents went ballistic.
They were only scratching the surface and really did not know what JR was up to. He graduated in June and was set to go to school that following fall to play football. He went for his August practices, failed the drug test and decided to come home.
His parents said he had to work full time. He got a job right away and started making reasonable money. However, he started drinking more and staying out all night. His parents confronted him. He responded by saying that their rules and expectations were ridiculous. They felt powerless.
During the mid fall, JR overdosed on heroin. He was hospitalized and went away to his first rehab. He lasted a week and left. His parents took him back home and he promised them the world. He was good for a few weeks. JR's mother was cleaning his room and found needles under his bed. She was devastated. She confronted him when he got home from work. He agreed after a much-heated discussion to go to a rehab again. This time he lasted fifteen days before he ran.
His parents took him back again. They were hoping that as he said, he was a changed man. A few weeks later he was arrested for possession. His charm and a high priced lawyer got him probation and community service.
While on probation, he was a model citizen and son. Since he was so cooperative and this was his first offense, he charmed his probation officer into petitioning the court to reduce his probation time.
He was only off probation a few weeks when he overdosed on heroin. After he was detoxed, he went back to rehab under duress. This time he lasted seven days before he left.
Initially, his parents told him he could not return home unless he completed a treatment program. He guilted them by saying he was living on the street and was starving. He manipulated them into allowing him to come home to save money so he could get out on his own. He said he needed a month. It has been six months and he is still living for free at home. His license was suspended and his Dad took care of all the fines. Although he has been better, JR's mother heard that he is using again. He refuses to take a drug test. They refuse to make it an ultimatum. Unfortunately, their "tough love" is enabling him rather than empowering him to abstinence and recovery. Hopefully, they won't find him overdosed in his bed one morning.

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