Have you ever heard of that controversial parenting approach known as Tough Love? Tough love is an expression used when someone treats another person harshly with the intent to help him or her. The phrase was coined by Bill Milliken when he wrote the book Tough Love in 1968 . Tough love in action could be concerned parents who refuse to support their drug-addicted child financially until he or she enters drug rehabilitation. “Tough love” boot camps for teenagers have been described as child abuse, and the National Institutes of Health noted that “get tough treatments do not work and there is some evidence that they may make the problem worse”. You could describe tough love process as a triangle: the teen acts out; the parents respond with a tough love approach; the teen reacts.
There is evidence to suggest that what the British call tough love can be beneficial in the development of character traits in children up to five years old. However, the British definition is similar to the concept of “authoritative” parenting, whereas American ideas about tough love are closer to “authoritarian” parenting, which has been linked with negative outcomes in other research. Tough love advocates authoritarian parenting. In fact, some British schools are permitted to use corporal punishment against students. The punishment is administered across the buttocks or on the hands. Statistics show that black and Hispanic students are more likely to be paddled than white students, possibly because minority-race parents are more inclined to approve of it. However, a study in Kentucky found that minority students were disproportionately targeted by discipline policies generally, not only corporal punishment.
Authoritative parenting, also called ‘assertive democratic’or ‘balanced’ parenting, is characterized by a child-centered approach that holds high expectations of maturity. Authoritative parents can understand how their children are feeling and teach them how to regulate feelings. They often help their children to find appropriate outlets to solve problems. Authoritative parents encourage children to be independent but still place controls and limits on their actions. Although not perfect, authoritative parenting is quite flexible and when a child reaches adolescence or teenage years, rules are agreed upon and established together. This is the type of household that might have a copy of Tough Love on its bookshelf. Authoritarian parenting, also called strict parenting, is characterized by high expectations of conformity and compliance to rules and directions, with little open dialogue between parent and child. Authoritarian parenting is a restrictive, punitive parenting style in which parents make their children follow their directions. Authoritarian parents expect much of their child, but do not explain the reasoning for the rules or boundaries. This type of parenting may rely upon corporal punishment to discipline children.
Since the book’s publication, Tough Love parent support groups have been established worldwide. When correctly implemented, Tough Love shifts power and responsibility in families impacted by out of control teens. The goal is to shift power
back the parents, and to hold the teen accountable for his or her behavior.Unfortunately, tough love has been misinterpreted over the years and is sometimes presented in ways that were not intended. Tough love was never intended to describe the drill sergeant type of discipline of authoritarian parenting. However, many support groups seem to also advocate “strict discipline” (see previous link). The concept of tough love is supposedly a positive one, but even when its principles are applied correctly, traqedy has been known to strike.
Case Study One – The Mahaffy Family
Leslie Erin Mahaffy (July 5, 1976 – June 16, 1991) was a teenaged female student, in Burlington, Ontario, Canada, murdered by serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. When she turned fourteen, Mahaffy began to rebel and run away from home. Leslie engaged in promiscuous sex, skipped school and shoplifted. Frustrated by their daughter’s behaviour, the Mahaffy’s joined a local tough love support group, who advised them that when she broke curfew, to lock the door and refuse to Leslie into the house. On the evening of June 14, 1991, Leslie went to a funeral home to attend a wake for her friend Chris Evans, a boy who died in a car accident earlier that week. A large group of teens met in the woods to drink and console one another. As the evening wound down, a couple of friends walked Leslie home before 2:00 AM, where they stayed with her while she found the side door locked. She told them the front door would be unlocked, and sent them home. After they, she found the front door was locked.
Leslie walked to a pay phone at Macs Milk and called a friend’s house for permission to sleep over. Her friend told her no. At 2:30 AM, Leslie went home to wake up her mother to get in the house. Leslie was picked up by Bernardo while she was sitting outside her home. When she missed Chris’s funeral the day after she had been locked her out of the house, her mother contacted the police. When Mahaffy failed to phone home on her birthday, her family knew she was unable to call them. On June 18, Debbie Mahaffy filed paperwork to have her daughter arrested as a runaway. Bernardo admitted he had been on Keller Court, where the Mahaffy home was located, when he saw Leslie. He offered her a cigarette, wrapped his sweatshirt around her head, forced her into the vehicle, and took her to the home he shared with Homolka. On June 29, 1991 Leslie’s body was found dismembered and encased in cement in Lake Gibson near St. Catharines, Ontario. Leslie’s remains are interred under a family headstone at Burlington Memorial Gardens in Burlington, Canada.
The Milgram Experiment
Stanley Milgram conducted a series of now famous experiments at Yale in the 1960s. Paid volunteers agreed to participate in a “memory experiment.” A Yale scientist in a lab coat told the volunteers to administer electric shocks to a study subject each time the subject gave a wrong answer. With each wrong answer, the voltage of the shock was increased.
- At 75 volts the subject grunts
- At 120 volts the subject shouts in pain
- At 150 volts the subject tries to quit but the scientist in the lab coat tells volunteers to keep going
- At 200 volts the subject screams in agony
- at 300 volts subjects stop responding to questions and mumbles something about a heart condition.
- At 450 volts, the scientist finally says the experiment is over
The real topic of the study wasn’t memory, but response to authority. The study subject who screamed in pain was an actor. Most of the volunteers wanted to stop administering shocks but with the expert authority figure telling them to continue, most continued to administer the shocks. Is allowing children to “hit rock bottom” with drug and alcohol addiction, promiscuous sex, skipping school, and other negative behaviours, really the answer?
Proponents of tough love urge parents to apply “bad medicine” sooner rather than later. One addiction counsellor claims she has worked with hundreds of young addicts in long-term recovery who have said: “It is when my parents got tough and stopped enabling that I was forced to deal with my disease.” Tough love is the answer for many youth when applied correctly. A former drug addict who is now an adult however stated “as a former addict who began using heroin and cocaine in late adolescence, I have never understood the logic of tough love. I took drugs compulsively because I hated myself because I felt that no one, not even my family, would love me if they really knew me.Why would being humiliated, once I’d given up the only thing that made me feel safe emotionally, make me better?….Many kids have histories of trauma and abuse.”
Lack of government oversight and regulation makes it impossible for parents to thoroughly investigate services provided by such “behaviour modification programs”, “wilderness programs,” and “emotional growth boarding schools.” The Justice Department has released reports comparing boot camps with traditional correctional facilities for juvenile offenders, concluding in 2001 that neither facility is “more effective in reducing recidivism.” In late 2004, the National Institutes of Health released a “state of the science” concensus statement, concluding that “get tough” treatments “do not work and there is some evidence that they make the problem worse.” What the evidence is, the Institutes didn’t reveal. Some researchers claim that it isn’t tough love that eliminates troubled behaviour in teens; the passing of time and maturity of character are the true solutions. Leslie Mahaffy is tragic proof that tough love fails many families. Use it at your own risk.