The generic term toughlove (or tough love) describes a style of caring applied in diverse interpersonal contexts whereby one person or group reasserts power over another for whom he or she is responsible. Claire Kowalski was the first person to use the term in published material, in 1976, to differentiate a respectful means of caring for elderly people that preserves self-mastery from a smothering style that promotes dependence. Since that first use, others have found the term useful. The Association of the Relatives and Friends of the Mentally Ill endorses the concept (Roberts, 1985). In its most common use today, the term describes the means by which parents of abusive, delinquent, or drug-abusing children can regain parental control. Toughlove is also the name of a Self-Help program for these parents and their children.
Toughlove, the self-help program, was developed by Phyllis and David York in 1980. They found that rescuing their daughter, who engaged in highly destructive behavior, did more harm than good. Instead, they permitted natural and logical consequences to correct their daughter’s behavior while they sought emotional support from their friends. They wrote and published Toughlove (1980) and founded an organization called the Toughlove Support Network (which is described in their later book, 1984). The network’s mission is to promote what they view as a mode of intervention for individuals, families, and communities.
According to the Toughlove philosophy, parents are the ones with the dominant power in a family. Children misbehave when parents fail to assert themselves or to take responsibility for their role as parents, but when parents’ expectations are stated clearly, a child will no longer control the family. Parents are urged to describe the behavior they expect from their children. Speculation about the causes of child misbehavior is discouraged. Parents do not need to understand why their child misbehaves. Instead, they must act in coalition with other parents to assert control of themselves and their home environment.
Toughlove parents are taught not to feel guilty about their child’s misbehavior, because children are responsible for their own actions. A Toughlove parent of a destructive child might say: “We have had enough. We are not rescuing you from the trouble you have caused. We love you enough to say no.” Proponents of Toughlove believe that drug and alcohol abuse is the most important causative factor in the disruptive behavior among teens. Once parents suspect drug and alcohol abuse, it is important that they investigate by questioning their child’s friends, school officials, other family members, and anyone else their child meets frequently. When parents find drug and alcohol abuse, they must require abstinence. Strict discipline and limit setting are seen as the only means of enabling children to behave and to have a chance of regaining control of their lives.
Parents must confront their child about the drug and alcohol abuse and stipulate the behavior they expect. Toughlove recommends that they require the child to stop using drugs and seek treatment if needed. If a child refuses to comply, he or she is to be ejected from the home. Many uncooperative children are sent to live with another Toughlove family until they are serious about meeting their own parents’ stipulations. Children who refuse to live with another Toughlove family are out on their own until they agree to their parents’ rules.
To gain help in maintaining firmness and setting appropriate rules, parents attend a support group consisting of other parents who endorse the Toughlove principles. Toughlove support groups are organized by the parents without any professional leadership. Besides providing support for parents, Toughlove groups evaluate the effectiveness of treatment programs and the effectiveness of professionals who treat children for alcohol and drug abuse.
Hollihan and Riley (1987) used qualitative research methods to study a Toughlove parent group. They found that several themes characterized group sessions and defined the Toughlove program experience for parents. First, the lay-led group emphasized that old-fashioned values are superior to those inherent in today’s method of raising children. Second, members regarded child-development professionals as advocates for modern child-raising methods that blame parents for child misbehavior. Third, they described the Toughlove group as their island of support within a pro-child social environment made up of the police, educators, social workers, and the courts. Last, the group provided successful models of rule setting by parents and enforcement of strict discipline—including as a final resort forcing a child to leave home. The group presented a persuasive and comforting rationale for the use of strict discipline that addressed the needs of parents who were experiencing great stress and feelings of failure (Hollihan & Riley, 1987).
Toughlove has been criticized as being simplistic and heavy-handed. According to Hollihan and Riley (1987), parents in the group they observed who did not believe their child was abusing drugs or alcohol were nevertheless instructed in how to document such abuse. Other possible causes of their child’s misbehavior were ignored, because the Toughlove solution is supposed to apply in all situations. The tactic of throwing an unruly child out of the house is especially controversial. Although most children go to live with other Toughlove families, some are forced to leave with nowhere to go and can become homeless, a predator or a victim, or a threat to themselves and others. For example, John Hinckley, who attempted to kill President Ronald W. Reagan in 1982, had been cast out of his home by parents who endorsed Toughlove and who later warned other parents to be cautious in disciplining their children.
Neither the Toughlove program nor the style of caring identified with it has been evaluated. On the one hand, there is anecdotal evidence from parents to vouch for it. On the other, as illustrated by the Hinckley family, Toughlove solutions can make matters worse. At present, we do not know whether the positive or the negative is the more common outcome, or whether positive outcomes result from factors having nothing to do with Toughlove.