“Just Give Them the Boot! Show Tough Love”
Every now and then when I explain to someone my work with failure to launch parents and young adults, I get a comment such as the above with the qualifier of “tough love.” The two words “tough love” have been co-opted by the addiction and juvenile delinquency treatment services in ways that the original definition did not intend. When the “love” part of the phare is neglected, it can justify harsh treatment with harmful results. Bill Milliken is widely accredited with coining the phrase “tough love.” I met Bill when we were colleagues in an organization called Young Life. Bill was a youth worker in the Lower East Side of Manhattan – back then a rough, gang, and crime-ridden area. In a recent communication, Bill had the following to say about the words “tough love.”
“When I wrote my first book, Tough Love, it never occurred to me that the term I coined for the title would become a widely used expression in the popular culture. It has also been widely misused by proponents of harsh, authoritarian parenting and abusive ‘boot camps’ for kids that often do more harm than good.”
Here are links to further reading on the failure of an approach that neglects the “love” part of “tough love.”
Love Tough Instead
“Tough Love” starts with love. Maybe the phrase should be “love tough.” All of my writing in my six books and over sixty blogs is predicated on the essential and fundamental expression of a parent’s unconditional love for a child, no matter what their age or circumstances. This is the starting point for making decisions or taking action with young adult children. A parent needs to ask two fundamental questions.
- First, is my decision or action an expression of love, or is it driven by fear, hurt, anxiety, frustration, revenge, or other such motions? If the latter, we need to reconnect to the love we have for our child before moving forward.
- Second, is my decision or action supportive of my young adult’s pathway toward responsible independence? Does my decision or action foster independence or dependence?
If we “love tough,” we start with the love we have in our hearts and then move to evaluate our possible decisions relative to what will be most helpful. It clearly was easier when they were a toddler, and you had to say “no” you can’t play in the street and restrained them from doing this.
Saying “no” to a young adult may mean calling the police if you believe your grown son or daughter is headed for the street or a car and is impaired. Will that adult child be mad at you? A good chance of this in the short run. Will you have saved their life and their future. Possibly. Regardless of the outcome, you will be able to look in the mirror and say you took the loving and right action. You can’t allow your concern with how your young adult may react to your decisions to override what you believe is both loving and in their best interest.
Secure the Foundation of Love
“Love tough” requires that we as parents establish a secure, loving relationship with our young adults so they will know the source of our actions. If they doubt our love and believe that we are trying to control them for reasons other than our love for and best interest in them, they will not respond favorably. Our influence has to start with love. I tell the story of an experience a colleague of mine had when working at Wilder Child Guidance Clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota. She shared an incident in a counseling session with a father and son. The son, a juvenile had gotten into lots of problems with drugs and the law. At one point in a counseling session, the young man looked over and asked his father – “would you cry for me if I died?’ The father, a big burly man who had been angry and frustrated with his son, said without hesitation – “There are not enough buckets in the world to hold the tears I would cry if something happened to you.” Do our young adults know that there are not enough buckets to hold the tears we would cry for them? It’s not enough to say – “they know I love them even though I don’t say it.” They might. But why leave any doubt as this father did?
Beyond securing the foundation of love, we need to challenge certain assumptions that drive us to actions that are not based upon love or support their developmental aspirations.
- First, we cannot control them and the decisions they make. One parent told me – “the trouble with young adults is that they are adults.” We have to come to grips with this fact, and they are adults and responsible for their actions.
- The second assumption follows this one: if they are accountable for their actions, we are not. This one is hard for us since we have an idea of what is best for them, and when they seem to be marching to a different drumbeat, it can be painful. We must never give up our hopes for their success in life but loving tough means we have to allow them to have their dreams for the future.
Put it in writing! I’m a big fan of writing out our heartfelt feelings and concerns for our young adults. I have written to all three of my now-adult children – and have shared with them that my love for them has no limitations. My letters also contain an apology for my shortcomings as a parent. They have the letters, and I have copies if we need to be reminded of the message. There is something tangible and symbolic about this act and the keepsake it represents. Why not take some time to put your love into writing- one page handwritten? I suggest finding some private time outside the home to read this to them and then hand it to them. As I said earlier, why leave any doubt?