Does Tough Love Work?


Many children challenge their parents with behaviors that leave the parents feeling desperate. From toddler temper tantrums to adolescent drug abuse, fighting and disrespect for adults and rules, undesirable behaviors pose problems for parents and can lead to negative outcomes for children. In 1968, Bill Milliken’s book, Tough Love, offered help for parents. Tough love is a concept that remains popular today, but many parents wonder if it really works. Nalalia Burns, a therapist who provides intensive in-home services for parents and children, along with her teammate, Marie Anderson, shed some light on this question.

eHow: Does tough love change children's behaviors?

  • Burns and Anderson: Yes. Tough love can work, when it is done correctly. Many parents become interested in tough love techniques when their children exhibit negative behaviors such as being irresponsible, disrespectful, breaking the law, behaving aggressively or violating others’ rights. Other morally or socially inappropriate behaviors that respond to tough love techniques include acting out sexually, stealing, cursing, lying, fighting, hitting, bullying, talking back to parents and authority figures, drug use and noncompliance with rules.

eHow: How do you explain tough love to parents?

  • Burns and Anderson: We explain to parents the importance of establishing and enforcing consequences for undesirable behaviors. And we stress the most essential aspect of tough love: consistency. Without consistency, a child learns that he can sometimes get by with the behavior. Inconsistency leads to patterns that are hard to break, because of the intermittent reward of not being held accountable. Just like gambling, a habit that is hard to break because a gambler sometimes wins, a child who does not receive consistent discipline may continue to break the rules. Tough love works if a parent is consistent. The "tough" part of tough love is not the child discipline, it's the self-discipline.

eHow: How do children and adolescents respond to tough love?

  • Burns and Anderson: Adolescents may feel as if parents are being “too hard” on them. Some children will not recognize the benefits and feel betrayed by parents or “unloved,” as if parents don’t care. Tough love works best when a parent explains “why” when implementing tough love techniques. “This is for your own good,” has to be delivered calmly and firmly, with reassurance that the new rules and consequences are because of the parent’s love for the child and concern for his or her future. When parents explain why they are using tough love, it supports the child’s understanding and increases acceptance and compliance with tough love tactics.

eHow: What are some important tough love techniques?

  • Burns and Anderson: Ideally, parents sit down with a child during a calm time, when the child has not behaved negatively, and they define the rules and expectations for the child's behavior. Consequences for breaking rules should be clearly defined during this conversation. Examples of disciplines include time-out, removal of privileges, extra chores or going to bed early. Tough love that works begins with the parent maintaining or regaining self-control before disciplining a child. The parent asks the child to acknowledge the broken rule or wrongdoing. Acknowledgement and acceptance of responsibility are key components of the tough love change agent. After the child acknowledges her error, a consequence is given. Ideally, the child recognizes that she chose this consequence through her behavior. Remember, tough love works when a parent is consistent. Threatening to discipline and not carrying through are not part of tough love.

eHow: Can all parents learn how to use tough love?

  • Burns and Anderson: All parents can learn to use tough love, but it is more difficult for some parents than for others. Many parents are ambivalent because they fear their child will no longer love them if they are tough, or if they don't give the child what she wants. The truth is, clear boundaries and expectations give children a sense of security. Indulged children – children who are not held accountable for their actions or who are always allowed to have their way – develop unrealistic expectations for themselves and for the world around them. And, they can become distrustful and resentful of their parents when they flounder in negative behaviors and get into trouble.

eHow: Are rewards used in tough love?

  • Burns and Anderson: Consequences are not the only reinforcer for a parent using tough love techniques. Giving rewards is also effective for extinguishing undesirable behaviors when used carefully. Rewards can be used as a small celebration of a child's success. Generally, a reward is given after a child completes or achieves a predetermined goal, such as not talking back to parents for a week, turning in homework every day for a week or not breaking curfew for a month. The criteria should be dependent upon the child's age and reasonable expectations. Rewards can include small gifts, treats, privileges, time off from a chore, special time with a parent, grandparent or friend or staying up later than usual.

About Nalalia Burns & Marie Anderson

  • Nalalia Burns is a mental health therapist for Integrated Family Services, PLLC. In her role with the agency, she performs individual and family therapy, as well as Intensive In-Home Services for families with children who are at risk for out-of-home placement due to child characteristics and family dynamics. Marie Anderson is a Qualifed Professional who works as Burns' teammate in intensive family services.


  • Photo Credit Nadezhda1906/iStock/Getty Images
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