The phrase “tough love” was by all accounts coined by community activist Bill Milliken in a book by the same name. Milliken, who was once a “street worker” engaged in keeping at-risk youth connected to the education system, advocated for a no-nonsense behavioral modification tactic. The idea of tough love is to change the way a person acts by treating them sternly, and perhaps even harshly, while also communicating that the treatment is offered in love, for the person’s best interest.
So does it work as a parenting style? In a word, no. Tough love offers a catch-all parenting tactic that fails to recognize that every child is different, fails to gain individual respect, and turns the relationship with your child into a power struggle.
Dr. Michele Borba, author of No More Misbehavin’: 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them, suspects that the impetus for the idea of tough love came from a desire to give children boundaries, which she notes are hugely important. “That’s how a child develops a conscience,” she says. She also notes that boundaries do not need to be particularly harsh. “It’s amazing how some kids need a few more reminders and other kids just need a look.”
Boundaries need to be based on the values that matter most to the parent. They also need to be reasonable and clearly stated as well as consistently enforced. “All children will test you,” Borba says. “Some a lot more than others. Your job is to let them know they are crossing the line and going too far.”
Where tough love goes off the rails is in the idea that it does not, in the end, matter how a child feels about their parent, as long as they understand the harsh treatment comes from a place of love. “You’re child has to respect you,” says Borba. “They’re not always going to love you in the moment but you will have to restore the relationship.”
A kid who doesn’t respect their parent and feels disrespected themselves, will be unlikely to receive the information a parent is trying to give them in regards to boundaries. As time goes on, the battle between parent and child will escalate and the parent will try to enforce boundaries with harsher tactics. Tough love, then, is essentially a warning sign that things in the parent-child relationship have gone south.
“You tried, tried, tried, but the one thing you didn’t do is be consistent,” suggests Borba. “Figure out what works and then be consistent with that approach.”
Borba notes that this is much better accomplished early in a child’s life by establishing reasonable boundaries, explaining the values behind those boundaries and consistent enforcing those boundaries. “
“If you’re respectful in the relationship when they’re younger, it will be much easier on you when they’re older,” Borba says. And then any tactic remotely resembling tough love will never have to come into play.