How to Use Tough Love When Parenting Troubled Teens

Mother with arms crossed sitting back-to-back with teen daughter

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Tough love is a parenting approach that can help children see that although their parents love them, they aren't going to enable them. Tough love parenting sends a message that essentially says, "I know you don't like what I'm about to do, but I'm going to do it anyway because it's good for you and I love you."

What Is Tough Love Parenting?

Tough love is often confused with authoritarian parenting. Authoritarian parents use a "my way or the highway approach" because they're more concerned with getting kids to comply, rather than teaching life lessons. Tough love parenting differs in that it can still be warm and empathetic.

Tough love parenting involves setting clear boundaries and limits. Consequences are enforced as a way to teach teens life lessons.

Parents may use tough love to help a child become more responsible for their behavior. Rather than rescuing them, offering extra chances, or protecting them from the consequences of their actions, tough love is about helping kids experience consequences for their behavior.

It may mean setting strict limits and creating consequences that teach life lessons or it might involve letting kids face the natural consequences of their behavior. Either way, it's meant to ensure that children understand that you're willing to do whatever it takes to help them do better.

Basic Principles of Tough Love

The overall idea behind the tough love approach is for parents to love their child enough to consistently set firm limits and follow through with appropriate consequences when a teen breaks the rules. It's often used with troubled teens who make risky choices. In these cases, a parent may need to let a child face the natural consequences of his behavior.

Another important tenet of tough love is that teens need to be responsible for their behavior. That means making sure a child is responsible for the choices they make. Tough love advocates the following teen parenting strategies:

  • Consistently set and enforce reasonable expectations, limits, and boundaries.
  • Find a balance between guiding your child and granting too much freedom.
  • Let go of trying to control your child. Let them make their own choices and allow them to experience the consequences.
  • Let your teen see your love while also being firm when discipline is needed.
  • Respect your teen as an individual going through important changes while growing into an adult.
  • Seek professional help when necessary.
  • Take a stand and take charge if a child creates an unsafe or unmanageable situation in the home.

Examples

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

With Teenagers

  • A parent discovers marijuana in a teen's room. The parents call the police to report this.
  • A parent tells an 18-year-old that they cannot continue living in the home if they don't have a job and/or attend school.
  • A teen experiences withdrawal from nicotine after a parent throws away their cigarettes. The parent refuses to buy any more cigarettes and doesn't give their child money to get them.
  • A teen skips their court-ordered community service. The parents notify the authorities the teen is non-compliant. 
  • A teen skips school. Parents notify school officials that their child is truant.

With Younger Children

Tough love is most often talked about in terms of troubled teens and substance abuse. But it can be used with younger children as well. Here are some examples of how a parent might use tough love to help a younger child be responsible for their behavior:

  • A 10-year-old forgets their soccer cleats for practice. A parent refuses to deliver them because they want their child to learn to be more responsible in the future.
  • A 12-year-old accidentally breaks their phone. Their parents tell them they will need to pay for a new one.
  • An 11-year-old is told they need to get their chores done before dinner. Their chores aren't done on time so they aren't allowed to go to the park with the rest of the family.

Benefits

A study conducted by Demos found that children with "tough love" parents were twice as likely to show positive character capabilities by age five. The author of the report found that warmth and consistent discipline were key to helping kids build character.

After analyzing data from more than 9,000 households in the UK, researchers found that qualities such as self-regulation and empathy were more likely in children whose parents used a tough love parenting approach.

Additionally, the report found that parenting style was more influential on children than their socioeconomic status. Regardless of whether children were rich or poor or had married or divorced parents, parenting style was the biggest predictor of character development.

Tips

Tough love proponents recommend parents recognize they have the power in a family. If a child is misbehaving or wreaking havoc on a family, it's up to the parents to create change. Here are some specific principles of tough love parenting:

  • 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.
  • Parents can't directly change their kids but can change their own behavior to bring about changes in their kids.
  • Parents have a huge influence on their kids and need to set an example they can learn from.
  • Parents need to be the authority figures in their home.
  • Parents need to send consistent and clear messages to their children.

What Tough Love Isn't

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. Additionally, 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.
  • Favor harsh rules or physical punishments.
  • Involve threats of calling the police in an effort to scare children into behaving.
  • Lock or kick teens out of the house.
  • Suggest producing pain in teens; to the contrary, they advocate bringing about positive changes.

A Word From Verywell

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.

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  1. Demos. Under the influence. Updated April 2011.

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