Recently I caught myself watching the Dr. Phil Show. I am not a typical fan, which has less to do with Dr. Phil and more to do with the show broadcasting personal family trauma. Many of these families seem to really be in need and the way to get help is to get on camera and share their issues for all the world to see? Is that ethical?
Regardless of my opinion, what hooked me the other day was a story related to “tough love.” The show featured a single mother struggling with her teenage daughter. The daughter’s behaviors were placing her at extreme risk of harm and her overwhelmed mother was at a loss. It seemed that this mother was trying to use a “tough love” approach but was coming up short.
I found myself caring deeply for this mother, and I think it’s because the concept of “tough love” has been an approach with children that I have both avoided and found hard to carry out. It’s not that I don’t see the need for it. There have been situations with adults in my life in which I believed tough love was the answer. However, even for adults tough love is – for me – a last resort.
And maybe it’s this “last resort” concept that caused me to connect with this mother’s pain. She appeared to be a mother who truly loved her daughter. Yet, her back was against the wall and she was being encouraged to “mother” her child in a manner that was unnatural for her. Her tendency to understand her child’s feelings, talk it out and show outward signs of compassion were being squelched. She was being encouraged to draw a firm line, show no emotion and withdraw her support.
In the end she was willing to take on this new role in order to ensure her child’s well-being. She was willing to sacrifice her own needs to be the one to rescue or be “liked” by her daughter – and isn’t that what being a parent is all about?
Don’t get me wrong, I am still not a fan of tough love, especially when it comes to young children. I would also contend that tough love only be used as a last resort and when children’s behaviors are placing them at risk. Tough love should not be a standard parenting approach. Parents can be firm and consistent without being “tough.” Toughness infers an unwavering stance in which children’s needs are ignored – overall not a great approach.
For those of us lucky enough not to need to use tough love, don’t! For parents who have had to deploy this approach – my heart goes out to you.