How to Use Tough Love When Parenting Troubled Teens

What Tough Love Is, and What It Isn't

Tough love can be the best way to help a troubled teen.
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Tough love is a parenting approach that can help when you're not sure what to do with a troubled teen. The tough love organization claims to have helped millions of families and defines their overall approach as "staying tough while setting and enforcing limits and boundaries for your kids."

Basic Principles of Tough Love

The overall idea behind the tough love approach is for parents to love their troubled teen enough to consistently set firm limits and follow through with appropriate consequences when a teen breaks the rules.

Another important tenet of tough love is that teens need to be responsible for their behavior. That means the adults need to hold them accountable for any poor choices they make.

The tough love approach advocates the following parenting strategies:

  • Let your teen see your love while also being firm when discipline is needed.
  • Utilize professional help for your troubled teen when needed.
  • Consistently set and enforce reasonable expectations, limits, and boundaries with your teen.
  • Find a balance between guiding your teen and letting him have freedom.
  • Respect your teen as an individual going through important changes while growing into an adult.
  • Create a safe environment for your teen and your family.
  • Take a stand and take charge when troubled teens create an unsafe or unmanageable situation in the home.
  • Teach your teen how to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
  • Let go of trying to control your teen. Let him make his own choices and allow him to experience the consequences.

More Tough Love Concepts for Parents

Tough love believes that a key component to dealing with a troubled teen is for parents to recognize the power they have and the power they don't have in responding to a troubled teen who is wreaking havoc in their family. Specifically:

  • Parents need to be the authority figures in their home.
  • Parents have a huge influence on their kids and need to set an example they can learn from.
  • Parents need to send consistent and clear messages to their teens.
  • Parents can't directly change their kids but can change their behavior to bring about changes in a teen.
  • Parents are not to blame when teens have problems; it is the teen who chooses to continue the inappropriate behaviors that impact the entire family.

What Tough Love Does Not Advocate

In some cases, tough love principles have been twisted and used inappropriately. Tough love does not advocate abuse or kicking teens out of the house. Those approaches clearly go against the tough love philosophy.

Some teen boot camps and military schools claim to use tough love. However, many of them don't subscribe to tough love philosophies.

Tough love does not:

  • Advocate embarrassing, shaming, or abusing teens in any way.
  • Lock or kick teens out of the house.
  • Suggest producing pain in teens; to the contrary, they advocate bringing about positive changes.
  • Favor harsh rules or punishments.

Examples of Tough Love

Here are a few examples of ways parents might use tough love:

  • A teen skips school. Parents notify school officials that their child is truant.
  • A parent discovers marijuana in a teen's room. The parents call the police to report this.
  • A teen skips her court-ordered community service. The parents notify the authorities the teen is non-compliant. 

The original tenets of tough love are a philosophy that works better for some families and some situations than for others; it is one of the few parenting strategies that have endured over many years.