Tough love is a way of looking after people you love by making them follow harsh restrictions and by forcing them to take responsibility. It’s a popular strategy for encouraging troublesome teens to give up self-destructive or lazy habits – but does it actually work?
The answer: yes and no. It depends very much on how you use it and why you use it. The following guide explains just how you can use tough love as a parent.
The right way to use tough love
If your teen is abusing drugs or alcohol, committing criminal behaviour, not attending school or generally misbehaving, it could be a good time to exercise tough love – especially if you’ve tried to talk to them about and have done all you can to approach the problem in a supportive way.
Tough love can be a way of showing your kids that you’re not going to take any nonsense any more while also looking out for their welfare. It involves making a threat and then acting on it if they continue to misbehave. This could include ringing the police if you catch your teen with drugs or committing criminal behaviour in your home, or refusing to clean any of your child’s clothes and changing the wi-fi password unless they start helping around the house.
The wrong way to use tough love
Tough love can be easily misused and could have a more damaging and abusive effect in such cases. A few examples of how NOT to use tough love include:
- Telling a child they have to move out unless they change their ways and then changing the locks when they continue to act upon their impulses.
- Allowing a child to indulge in dangerous behaviour such as taking hard drugs, telling them that ‘you don’t care any more’.
- Using psychological bullying or physical violence.
It’s important that you put your foot down while still providing basic legal care for your child. Locking your child out or not refusing to feed your child could be viewed as abuse.
You should also continue to show that you are there for your child rather than distancing yourself from them – cutting off contact and support may only drive them away and could enable them to continue. This could be dangerous with certain things like substance abuse. In such cases, it may be better to consider a substance abuse intervention and show that you’re still there for them.
Tough love is something that should be planned and shouldn’t be something that you try to implement in the heat of the moment. Any threats need to be delivered calmly and clearly to show that you are serious rather than angrily yelling it during an argument.
When to use tough love…
Tough love can be a good way to eliminate negative behaviours but it needs to be carefully planned out and not just done in the heat of the moment. Any threats need to be harsh but fair – you should not do anything that could harm your child or enable their behaviour.
Curbing Exploratory Behavior
When a child is acting out it is often because they are trying to push the boundaries. They are testing the waters, trying to figure out how much they can get away with. This is why when you take a toddler to the playground they will engage in exploratory behaviour, playing on different parts of the playground and speaking to different kids. If things get too heated, they run back into the safe arms of their mother.
Unfortunately, as kids get older and turn into teenagers, this exploratory behaviour has the potential of setting your son or daughter on the wrong path. It is important to let them explore and discover their identities. If you don’t then they will see you as a tyrant, and will either cower in fear from you (which is something you don’t want!), or say to hell with this and fall into rebellion. The key is maintaining the balance, letting them go out into the world to explore but not to the point where it can cause them serious harm.
Tough love must be used when they want to engage in exploratory behaviour that may be damaging to them. No matter how much they want to see their ex girlfriend or boyfriend, or go to a party that is hosted by a kid who has some notoriety, or how much they want to skip school, the boundary must hold. During these instances your kid may say things like “I hate you” or “you are the worst parent ever.” You will be tempted to prove them wrong by compensating, trying to broker a deal with them, or even saying “fine, just this once.” Unless there is a fair reason for occasionally adjusting the rules at the time, you should avoid bending them or they’ll lose their meaning.
Consistency and discipline are your best bet when it comes to walking the line. The boundaries you set up must be reasonable, and you may even broker deals with your teen. For example, say they must be home every night by 8pm. You could make a deal with them that if they raise their grades to a certain benchmark then the curfew period will be extended by an hour. This will make them realize that they have the opportunity to achieve the extended freedom which they desire, while also giving them a clear path on how to go about getting it. This will demonstrate that you respect your teen and can mean a lot to them. Often, teenagers act out because they do not believe they are getting the respect they deserve at home, so they go about elsewhere to try to find it, namely their peers in schools.
Being Compared to Other Parents
Another tactic that your child might use against you is to compare you to their friends’ parents.
“Lucas’ mom lets him drink!”
“Tina’s parents are letting her go to the party!”
All of this is can be difficult to deal with and to hear, but don’t let your teen convince you that you’re a bad parent What you are really doing when exercising tough love is taking away short term pleasure for long term gains. For example, skipping the party pays off with an improved test score or athletic performance the next day. Unfortunately, teenagers usually do not understand delayed gains until later in adolescence. When grow up a bit and realize the rules you enforced helped them in long term, they might actually thank you for it!
Tough Love Pays Off
It can feel as if tough love is hurting you and your teen more than helping, but these short terms setbacks will pave the way for a closer relationship and long term successes. Teens that can learn to delay their gratification and respect the rules can excel later in life, and will likely realize that your decisions as a parent may have helped them get there.