Tough Love - When Do We Need It?
Sometimes parents wonder---Do I need to be “tougher” with my son or daughter? The parents of teens continually consider whether they are being clear enough, firm enough, or tough enough. It can be a daily question.
Much of this internal debate comes from our own childhood experiences. I grew up in a pretty undisciplined house. My parents had three boys, and I think at a certain point we wore them down! So, we were given a lot of freedom and not much supervision. Looking back, their parental behavior had both good and bad consequences. On the one hand, we became very independent. But on the other hand, we didn’t always exercise good judgment. And there were times when we would have benefited from more guidance—and control.
Other adults grew up in very strict families. Their parents may have run a very tight ship, with little room for expression. In those families, children were to be “seen but not heard”. Some of those parents were very punitive and controlling. None of their children would even think to question their parents or refuse to do what they were told! These individuals will also tell you there were good and bad consequences that comes with a strict upbringing. Many of these children became disciplined adults. But they may not have learned how to handle their emotional life very well.
Much of our parenting perspective comes from our own lived experience. Truly we want to model the parental behaviors we liked as children and discard the ones we thought weren’t so hot. We want our children to become disciplined, responsible adults but with the tools to handle the complex emotional life we live.
Certainly, we are impacted by the time we live in! When I was a kid, there was no such thing as cell phones (A great tool to keep track of your teens if they would only answer their phone!). There is now technology that permits parents to track where their teens are in space and time through the GPS system in their cell phone! “Texting” in my day meant writing a paper for school. And, our culture today is even more youth centered than it was 20 years ago. These changes impact our parenting style and the problems we will encounter today.
Finally, as parents we are more sympathetic to the experience of children than perhaps our parents were. This is partly a cultural shift of perception and partly a result of our experience growing up. We may have felt that our parents weren’t so aware of the struggles we had as children. We want to be more empathic with our children.
So given these considerations, when is tough love required? How do we know when to be firm and when to be flexible?—when to be stern and when to be soft?
As you may recall from previous posts, I am a big one for encouraging parents to be consistent and predictable with their children. But it is also important to be clear. What does this mean? Let your kids know at every stage of their development, what you expect. When you want them to make their bed, show them what it should look like. Let them know what you expect when you ask them to clear the table. Be clear about what behaviors you want them to exhibit. And make sure that your expectations match their developmental stage.
Be authoritative not authoritarian.
Authoritative parents are clear, consistent, predictable and firm. They are not inflexible, harsh, and judgmental. They have earned their children’s respect and they are models for the behavior they expect. They “walk the talk” and that engenders respect. They don’t need to rely on their position, their strength, or that “might makes right”.
Be firm, when it is required
The concept of “tough love” was coined in a book, named the same, in 1968. It really refers to the notion that firmness and love are not mutually exclusive. Setting “clear” limits which are “firmly” applied in a loving manner expresses the heart of tough love. It is often risky behavior which requires the application of firm love.
Some years ago, a parent came to me about her 19 year old daughter who was involved in risky alcohol abuse. Her daughter had left home at 18, bottomed out, and wanted to move back in—but not really address her substance abuse problems. Her mother was in great distress. This was her “baby” and she didn’t want to say no. I encouraged her to stick to her guns and not let her daughter come home until she was in treatment. Months went by. Finally, her daughter did get help.
Years later, her daughter, now an adult, came to see me. She told me—“At the time when I wanted to come home, I was furious at my mother. But now, I know she did the right thing. She loves me so much! She was a great mom and today we have a great relationship”.
This was music to my ears…and her Mom’s.