So What is Tough Love?


I had a middle aged couple in my office today with serious concerns about their seventeen year old daughter.  At one point the father suggested that what they needed to do was “tough love” with their daughter.  I asked each of them what was meant by this.  The father was very quick to state that “tough love” means throwing her out if she doesn’t comply with house rules and let her hit “rock bottom”.  At that point the mother started crying uncontrollably.  When she was able to talk, she said that this meant throwing their daughter to the lions, throwing her away with the probability of never seeing her alive again.

It’s really very sad and heart wrenching when parents feel so lost, so hopeless and helpless that they feel that nothing is left for them to do.  Yet, this feeling of losing one’s child in such situations is not so uncommon in my office (perhaps beyond the office also).  Those in the mental health field, especially treatment of children and youth, hear this dread all too many times.

According to Wikipedia, Tough Love is an expression used when someone treats another person harshly or sternly with the intent to help them in the long run. The phrase was evidently coined by Bill Milliken when he wrote the book Tough Love in 1968 and has been used by numerous authors ever since.  Tough love sounds like an easy concept, but unless fully understood, one will find themselves in more problem situations with their at-risk teen, and possibly crisis situations, that leave the parents more distraught.  All too often parents take on a “tough love” solution with their teen in order to justify their giving up or anger towards their teen.

Does “tough love” prevent or cure the enabling environment many parents fall into?  Where is the line between enabling a teen and helping one’s child?  One definition I found describes the following:  Helping is doing something for someone else that they can’t do for themselves. Enabling is doing something for someone else that they can and should do for themselves. Enabling allows your teen to comfortably continue with his unacceptable behavior. Enabling can be intentional or unintentional. At any rate, the teen remains the same because there are no consequences for bad behavior. The enabler facilitates the continuation of unacceptable behaviour”.   

Now I know this sounds scary and one instantly feels that cringe of guilt inside one’s gut.  Nevertheless, one has to look at enabling as a situation that continues the pathology rather than teaches a means to be rid of it.  Of course those who swear that they will never enable their child’s pathology, bad behaviour, addiction or defiance, often swing the other way with what they label as “tough love”.  “No way am I going to have anything to do with that kind of behaviour”.  “Not in my house will this kind of be behaviour be accepted”.  “You will do as I say as long as you have your feet under my table”.

Does love for one’s children have to be unconditional?  Do we even know what this means?  Is love ever unconditional?  Unconditional love usually means to love someone regardless of the loved one’s qualities or actions.  One refers to unconditional love in describing a mother’s love for her newborn infant or in an idealized romantic relationship.  Is our love for our children or partners automatically unconditional, meaning that no matter what they say or do we will accept it?  Not likely!  Nevertheless, when we enable our children or partners, we might be doing just that.  In 1970, there was a popular film entitled “Love Story, where the line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” originated.  However, love does mean having to say you love.

The problem with what most people refer to as “tough love” is that there’s more “tough” than love.  That is, they are quick to use the “tough” portion to justify their anger at their child and all the ramifications and reactions related to that.  However, where is the love?  More and more research shows us that being only tough with rebellious youth only gives them justification to fight back.  So, as I’ve written about in the past, we develop an anger circle which spirals out of control.  We are so busy fighting each other, retaliating and trying to win the battle, that nothing is resolved in a positive way.

Sometimes the best fighting strategy is to “kill them with kindness”.  Having a useful strategy with rebellious youth is critical.  That strategy dictates that you must “change the rules”.  Every situation has rules.  It’s like the board game called Life”.  When someone rebels, they have both conscious and unconscious rules they are playing by.  The “winner” is the one who can change the rules to obtain the playing advantage.  When our competitor wants to fight with us, they set the stage for fighting.  When we change the rules to non-confrontational, they aren’t sure how to handle the situation.  The fact is, when our rebellious youth are confrontational, they are trying to provoke a response.  It’s the way the game is played.  “Tough love” says that we are going to ensure our youth know, feel and recognize our love while not falling prey to our children’s game rules.  We can stand tough while still loving.  By doing so, we can stay strong within our belief system and not fall into the trap of anger.  With anger, no one wins and retaliation is likely to take over.

Let’s remember that our children and youth learn from how we handle difficult situations.  When we become angry, retaliatory and punitive, that is what we will get back in return.  As I have shared with my readers before, one of my favourite signs in my office states:

“Don’t worry that your children are not listening to you; worry that they are watching you.”

As difficult as it is, love them and then love them more.  Use your energy to get beyond your anger towards them.  There are never guarantees when it comes to raising our children.  However, your chances are much greater when you use consistency with love.  Say what you mean and mean what you say. That is true “tough love”.

Mr. Schild is the Senior Clinical Supervisor of Regesh Family and Child Services in Toronto, Ontario Canada.  He is also certified as an Anger Management trainer and conducts many therapeutic workshops.  Regesh runs many programs helping families and youth dealing with personal and family issues in their lives.  He is currently open to speaking engagements.  He can be reached at 416-495-8832 extension 222 or  Visit

Published by regesh2019

We, at Regesh, have been providing counseling programs for children, youth, individuals and families for the past 38 years. We utilize a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach to provide a stable foundation that addresses our current & future client's needs and abilities to become more healthy and balanced.

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