Showing someone 'tough love' means being firm with them in a way that should help their well-being. But does it actually work? Psychologist Stanislava Puač Jovanović examines the evidence...


Does tough love work? When I think about this question, a close friend I grew up with since I was six comes to my mind. Her parents undertook this approach whenever she was underperforming or downright making trouble. Did it deliver results? Well, yes and no. 


I will speak about her in more detail to illustrate the general position of this article. And that is — tough love may work to deliver results in a specific situation. In the short run, it may seem as if it worked. However, it can also lead to many pitfalls. Indeed, exercising tough love is not to be taken lightly, as it may cause more harm than good. 


The outcomes of tough love: anecdotal evidence

My friend from the introduction lived two stories above my apartment. We went to kindergarten, elementary and high school together. We remained in daily contact when we moved to different cities for college and visited each other often. We were best friends for almost 30 years. Therefore, I was a witness to her development until she was a mother herself. 


Although I cannot claim that I know which factors were crucial in making her the person she is today, one thing I can say — tough love was effective. Still, I believe the effects were both affirmative and harmful at the same time.


At the end of one semester in high school, she, somewhat in rebellion, received “F”s for 80 per cent of her classes. When her parents found out, all hell broke loose. They forbid her from leaving the apartment for a month between the semesters. She was allowed to see only me and a classmate who was coming to study with her. They remained cold and distanced (although they did verbalise their best intentions) until she started receiving good grades again. 


Tough love is common in parenting

And, yes, she did begin to receive good grades again. So, because of that, one might argue that the approach was fruitful. Yet, I also know that this enactment of tough love, like all the others, left her with a loss. She remained, to the day, riddled with an all-pervading feeling of solitude and fear of the world. She never felt entirely safe and unconditionally accepted by her parents.


Let us not, nonetheless, stay in the realm of anecdotal evidence. What does science have to say about tough love and its effectiveness?


What is tough love?

According to Merriam-Webster, tough love is “love or affectionate concern expressed in a stern or unsentimental manner (as through discipline) especially to promote responsible behaviour”.  


It is believed that the term was first used in a 1968 book of the same title by Milliken and Meredith. Since then, tough love has become an everyday phrase as much as it is a psychological concept. 


The American Psychological Association clarify what tough love means in psychology:

  • It is aimed at fostering individuals’ well-being
  • It means requiring the person to act responsibly and seek professional assistance when they are experiencing problems
  • The oversight and restrictions of personal freedom and privileges must be willingly accepted to be effective

According to the same source, typically, families of adolescents or young adults with a prolonged history of substance abuse take on tough love to help them heal. 


However, tough love is the method of choice by some parents for any misbehaviour or irresponsible action. One example was that of my friend. I also know about cases in which parents engaged in tough love to attempt to teach the child to fix their own problems — such as not covering for them when they skip classes or letting them settle their disputes independently. 


Tough love happens in adult relationships as well. Apart from helping someone overcome addictions or other problem behaviour, tough love could be implemented in romance, friendships or at work, too. 


For example, when one of the partners or friends gets into the habit of being hurtful or disrespectful, the other might withhold affection to show them where the boundaries lie. 


A team member sometimes tends to tag along and then gather praise with the proactive colleagues. The coworkers could then implement tough love. They could let the inert member of the team feel the repercussions of their inaction — instead of doing their part of the work for them, as usual. 


The same goes for other groups and communities. A theoretical paper demonstrated that group members are willing to be critical and exhibit a form of tough love when they believe that doing so is in the interest of the collective.


Does tough love work?

Many a parent has weighed the use of tough love against the horrifying possibilities that might lie ahead on their child’s life path. Whenever we care for someone, not only as parents, the time may come when this approach crosses our mind. Sometimes, our loved ones are going down a path that is unquestionably bad for them. Tough love sounds like the only remaining rescue when they do not seem to respond to reasoning or pleas. 


Yet, responding to the question of whether such an approach works is not simple. 


Tough love: pros

  • Advocates of the approach propose that social immobility is caused by parental indulgence, failure to set boundaries, moral laxity and disciplinary incompetence. In other words, a failure to implement some tough love might produce adults who are not equipped to move ahead in life. 



Tough love: cons

  • Empirical research seems to provide proof against the use of tough love. At least when it is not combined with other, positive means of directing a troubled person towards healing and improving.


  • A systematic review of scientific literature evaluating compulsory drug treatment demonstrated that such approaches do not deliver the desired outcomes. In some instances, they directly cause harm instead of helping the clients.


  • The use of physical punishment on children will make the child more aggressive and antisocial, with problems with developing an internal moral compass. The child could have a lower intellectual achievement because of such punishments and experience mental health problems — particularly depression. The quality of the parent-child relationship would probably be poor.


  • Bootcamps for troubled teens, according to research, only result in increased chances of committing offenses later on.


  • Solitary confinement in violent prison inmates does not decrease the possibility of future misconduct.


The verdict

So, what to think about tough love, then? 


Remember, tough love is a concept that comprises two elements — toughness but, most importantly, love. For it to work, in other words, it must be based on and guided by genuine care and affection. 


A study done on coaches of disadvantaged youth seems to confirm that. Less successful coaches would build a sense of family within the team but used very negative militaristic coaching strategies. Successful coaches, on the other hand, developed close relationships along with a positive team climate. They challenged players while being supportive and promoting their autonomy. 


“Empirical research seems to provide proof against the use of tough love. At least when it is not combined with other, positive means of directing a troubled person towards healing and improving.”


In terms of helping adolescents with substance abuse, findings suggest that the programmes based on empathy and voluntary participation are much more effective. A multisystemic approach is more beneficial in troubled youth exhibiting violent, antisocial behaviours, delinquency, and emotional problems. It targets family relations and works to develop healthier, loving surroundings in which the troubled adolescent lives. 


Principles of exercising tough love

The studies and academics’ works above have taught us that tough love needs to be exercised in a specific way to deliver results. Unless enacted correctly, it turns into punishment. It becomes a means of dividing people instead of bringing them closer. It might temporarily reduce the problem behaviour, but, in the long run, it will do no good.


How can you show tough love to be sure it will help someone you love? Here are some basic principles to consider:


  • Empathy, not sympathy Sympathy means having compassion for the suffering or sorrow of another. However, sympathy is largely based on our beliefs and projections of our own feelings and experiences. Instead of sympathy, give the troubled person your empathy. According to the American Psychological Association’s dictionary, it means “understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own”. Therefore, when your close one suffers, try to understand their point of view. This will help you provide the kind of help they need — not the one YOU THINK they need. 


  • Boundaries If you are helping someone using tough love, you should be careful not to get into a rescuer mode. Also, you ought not to be the persecutor. So, no tolerating the harmful and unacceptable behaviour, but also no punishment and harshness. These are all games people play that offer only one role for the person you are trying to help — that of a victim. Remember the goal of the intervention. It is for them to become autonomous. They need to become able to take good care of themselves and others. Healthy boundaries are as important as they might be difficult to achieve. This is why you should not be afraid to ask for help.

    Establish tough love without hurting others shutterstock/Rido


  • Ask for help Do not hesitate to reach out when your loved one is struggling. Trying to help someone who has behavioural problems, addictions, has emotional issues, or any other ailment can be too much of a challenge for one caring person. Ask for professional assistance in tackling the problem. Avoid the risks — for your loved one or yourself. 


Establishing tough love

Toughness can be difficult for both the giver and the receiver. This is why you should not go into a tough-love intervention without a sort of roadmap. Feel free to write down what you aim to achieve and how you plan to do it. Revisit this note often to keep yourself and the process on track.


Here are some ideas on what to include in your plan so that you can execute the principles and guidance you learned about in this article in practice:

  • The aim — What is the goal of your actions? What are you hoping to achieve?
  • The commitment —Are you devoted to executing it?
  • The obstacles — What will be the biggest difficulties in executing tough love? How will you overcome them?
  • The stakeholders — Who will be affected by this intervention? Who do you need to get directly involved in the process?
  • The helpers — Who can help you to overcome the obstacles you listed above? Will you consult a professional? Will you involve friends and family members?
  • The boundaries — where do the limits lie? What will you not tolerate? What line will you not cross or allow others to cross? How will you ensure that you do not cross anyone’s limits?
  • Respect and care — How will you ensure that you express your love and care for the person you are helping? How will you respect their autonomy? How will you promote their self-care and self-sufficiency?
  • The ending — When will the process end? How will you know that it is enough? How will you proceed afterwards?


The takeaway: tough love

Intuitively, many of us might agree with using tough love sometimes. Especially when one is a parent and has tried (and failed) to teach a child to be responsible by pampering them. In some situations, the only way to spark accountability and self-sufficiency seems to be a bit of tough love. 


Requiring someone to act maturely and take care of themselves (or seek professional help when they cannot do so) is, indeed, an act of care and love. However, as this article also showed – it is an instrument that tends to backfire. 


So, if you feel that your loved one would benefit from a bit of toughness, do not forget — the balance (and the key to making it work) lies in the other component of the concept. Love. 


Always act from the place of care and affection. Never sacrifice understanding and acceptance for harshness, even when it comes from your best intentions. 
Main image: shutterstock/juninatt | The fine art of being: learn, practise, share

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Written by Stanislava Puač Jovanović

bert.jpgStanislava Puač Jovanović has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a freelance writer and researcher in this area. Her primary focus is on questions relating to mental health, stress-management, self-development and well-being.




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