tough loveWhen I was growing up, I heard a lot about tough love.  It wasn’t actually in reference to me, or to my sister; it was about my mother’s best friend, who was trying to practice “tough love” with her promiscuous, drug abusing, disrespectful teenage daughter.

The mother went to meetings where she was called an “enabler” of her daughter’s behavior, and was told that the only way to fix the problem was to hold a firm line: If the daughter didn’t follow the rules, she lost all family support.  She needed to suffer the consequences of her actions.  It was the only way she’d learn.

The problem is, tough love didn’t feel much like love–to the daughter, or the mother.  The suffering went on for years, ceaselessly.  But maybe it would have been even worse without that guiding philosophy.  What are the alternatives, anyway?

I have a number of clients who happen to be confronting similar situations.  In some cases, the child is a teenager; in other, it’s a grown adult but one who hasn’t yet learned to make good life choices.  Often, drugs are involved.

The legal and ethical questions are different, based on the age of the child, but the basic questions are the same: I love my child, who is hurting; how can I stand my ground when she won’t yield any?  When will he hit that rock bottom everyone is talking about and pull it together?  If I keep saying no, will he or she continue to love me back?

Now that I’m a parent myself, these stories hit me more profoundly.  I always felt sympathy before, but now it’s more empathy.  I imagine my daughter growing up and going down a path that I know will bring her pain.  I imagine the agony of watching her hurt herself, because that’s what it really means to be out of control.

I like to think I’d recognize the signs early, that I’d get her into therapy and know how to make sure the therapist was good.  I like to think there’d be open communication and mutual respect between us.  But if none of that is enough…?

Every day, I watch my clients face choices, like whether to bring their drug-abusing sons a meal or not (the money he didn’t have to spend on food could now go to drugs) or to advocate with their high school teachers so they can get another chance rather than fail a class for yet another blow to the self-esteem.   They wonder how tough to be, with a child who’s already so self-destructive and so tormented.  Each decision can feel epic and terrifying.

I think that’s why the tough love movement was once so popular (and still is in teen rehabilitation circles.)  It’s a clear blueprint, when often things feel muddled.  It’s black and white, when the situation feels so gray.

The hope–when your child is very young like mine–is that you will never grapple with such choices.  The hope is that by giving enough love (the tenderest kind), you will never have to get so tough.  But I see my clients, and I know that what’s happening with their children is not caused by a failure of love.

What’s frightening about being a parent is the element of randomness.  We do our best and try to have faith that we (and our children) will find our way through.  They’ll inevitably learn that life is tough.  We hope we don’t have to be the ones to teach them.