When it comes from a place of mutual respect and trust, tough love can be a useful parenting tool. On the other hand, we've all seen children whose parents were nothing but "tough." These parents might have pushed their kids to excel in sports, music or academics, or they might have even used physical, verbal or emotional abuse to assert their authority. If you feel the need to employ tough love as a parent, it's important to understand what repercussions your behavior might have. Though not all tough love is abuse, it's a narrow line to walk.
Elements of Constructive Tough Love
If your child is struggling academically or socially, you might need to adapt your parenting style to a tough love approach. Though it might appear cold on the outside, constructive tough love is actually about listening, understanding your child's strengths and weaknesses, respecting your child and modeling positive behavior. It's also about setting clear rules and boundaries and sticking to your guns when these rules are broken. A child can learn and grow from punishment when she breaks a rule, but conversely, her behavior may get worse if your punishment isn't appropriate to the situation. Spanking your five-year-old for accidentally breaking a glass, for example, would be too extreme a punishment.
Tough Love for Younger Children
Generally, tough love is inappropriate for babies and younger children. Babies need attentive care and loving contact to build a foundation of trust with you and other humans. They have very basic needs that only you can meet, and children don't develop the presence of mind to "manipulate" you until they're much older. If your toddler is acting out, she's not trying to control you -- she's trying to communicate something. If you're sleep training your baby or dealing with a tantrum, it is acceptable to step back and allow your child to cry, as long as you still meet her basic needs. However, proponents of hands-off parenting will still insist that you don't let your child cry for an extended period because it builds up high levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Tough Love for Older Children
Tough love may be the only way to create a positive change in teens involved in substance abuse or criminal behavior. If you have an overly lax parenting style, your teen may be craving the kind of structure that tough love provides. In this case, setting clear rules and expectations will give him the structure he needs. If you take this approach, remember to follow through on your agreements. If your teen behaves appropriately, reward him, but if he breaks the ground rules, use your agreed-upon system of punishment (removal of privileges like using your car, video games or going out on the weekends), to address the problem. Be consistent, too. There's no point to having rules in place if there aren't rewards and repercussions.
When Tough Love is Abusive
Sometimes, parents who employ tough love forget the "love" part. Setting excessively difficult goals for your children, punishing them when they don't attain these impossible goals, withholding "I love you" and other emotional proclamations and withholding rewards for good behavior are all examples of detrimental parenting. According to recent research from the University of California at Berkeley, children of extreme authoritarian parents frequently suffer from depression, anxiety and social problems.