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Tough Love Tactics for Toxic Teens

Updated on September 14, 2013
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Model Morgan (creative) Teenage Drug Addict Free to use or share
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What I am about to write may bring a barrage of comments from those who do not believe in the concept of ‘Tough Love’. And from those who feel that children should be helped out of their messes and disasters time and time again; even when that child has become an adult.

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So what exactly is Tough Love?

There is no definitive description of ‘Tough Love’. The American Heritage® Dictionary describes it as The use of strict disciplinary measures and limitations on freedoms or privileges, as by a parent or guardian, as a means of fostering responsibility and expressing care or concern” whilst the Collins English Dictionary© defines it as the practice of taking a stern attitude towards a relative or friend suffering from an addiction, etc., to help the addict overcome the problem” Two very different definitions there, and there are others. My own personal view is that it is a combination of the two definitions with a few added extras depending on the parent’s conscience.

Is Tough Love ever advisable?

I believe it is in some cases. The type of situation I would advocate tough love in is when absolutely everything else humanly possible has been tried and failed and the child or young person is firmly committed to spiralling rapidly downward. I consider it to be something to be used as a last resort.

What leads a parent to believe that nothing else but Tough Love will work?

Here are some examples based on real experiences:

  • When your child has begun breaking the law and visits from the police have not frightened them enough to stop them doing it.
  • When the young person has become violent and/or abusive towards you and shows no respect.
  • If you have repeatedly asked for help to organisations and not been given any due to limited resources.
  • If your child has entered the Youth Justice system and will not engage with the programs put in place to help them.
  • When you have no-one at all to support and help you.
  • If your teen has gained control over you.
  • If you are afraid of your child and fear for your safety.
  • If your young person is stealing from you and refuses to stop.
  • When the child repeatedly damages your property.
  • When their personality has changed through drug usage and you find you are funding their habit.

Because personal boundaries are just that; personal, you may find that there are other instances when tough love becomes the appropriate course of action.


Would you Consider Tough Love?

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A Real Life Case Study

When Jason (not his real name) was 3 years old his happy family life was shattered by the departure of his beloved father. Initially his dad came to see him regularly until a new love interest came into his life. The visits to Jason became sporadic and eventually stopped. Little Jason was heartbroken and began wetting the bed. A year later just as Jason had settled at school his father put in an appearance and began to see him regularly again for about a year and then suddenly stopped. Jason started to have continence problems at school. He got bullied by the bigger boys because he was small and had some slight learning difficulties. Jason’s dad continued to abandon him repeatedly over the years.

Eventually his difficulties lessened but the bullying continued although Jason never acknowledged that he was being bullied and viewed it as some weird kind of camaraderie.

At age 11 a new, older boy came to live nearby and took Jason under his wing. Jason’s mum didn’t like this boy and wondered why he was so interested in her little son. Jason started being difficult at home and at school and mum assumed that it was adolescence. She tried many different reward systems and talked to him about actions and consequences. Although working full-time to make ends meet she tried to give Jason lots of love and attention.

She suspected he might be smoking and indeed one day discovered cigarettes in his room. She destroyed them and grounded him for a week despite his protests that he was ‘keeping’ them for someone. None of her measures worked. She could have grounded him for life and he would have still misbehaved.

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Jason 's story continues

Jason began truanting and refusing to do his homework. His mum tried to work with the school and fought to get him seen by the educational psychology service who concluded that Jason was behaving badly because he chose to do so and needed more pocket money.

He started staying out late and sometimes not returning home. He told mum that he had stayed at a friend’s house. He never answered his phone when his mum rang to find out where he was when he didn’t return at the stated time. He became sullen and disrespectful and refused to do anything that was asked of him. More groundings ensued, pocket money was stopped, privileges curtailed. Mum kept stressing how much she loved him and wanted things to be good at home for him. Jason didn’t care. His family didn’t matter anymore; only his friends.

Sometimes Jason seemed sleepy and unable to get up for school. Many a morning mum couldn’t get him out of bed at all. She thought he was ill and took him to the doctor; he ran away in the car park. He was oppositional and defiant. His mum thought there was something wrong psychologically with him and that it was related to his father who had just reappeared in his life. She tried to involve social services who came and visited once and were never heard from again despite repeated calls and emails to them.

Jason’s mum found a small bag with some green, vile smelling substance in his school bag and realised it was marijuana. She didn’t know what to do with it but certainly didn’t want her son smoking it so phoned the police who agreed to come out and as they put it, ‘put the frighteners on him’. Mum was highly embarrassed by Jason’s cocky and disrespectful behaviour towards the police. The ‘talk’ made no difference whatsoever to his behaviour.

Jason’s behaviour in fact deteriorated until when he was around 15 years of age he was regularly verbally abusing his mother and sometimes being violent towards her. If he didn’t get his own way he would smash up her things and steal money and possessions from her. He didn’t even bother to hide the fact that he was smoking the stronger strain of cannabis known as skunk and told her he had been doing it since he was 11 years old. Mum put two and two together and realised that Jason had in fact been the runner for his older ‘friend’.

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Jason was breaking the law regularly but never getting caught. His mum wanted him to stop smoking weed and taking other drugs because he had no motivation and could barely get out of bed. He was at a crucial stage at school but wasn’t doing any of the work. He was letting himself and his friends into the house whilst mum was at work so she took his key away from him. He took to breaking and entering. Jason’s dad had now moved house and not told him where he had moved to. All contact had stopped.

One evening when he couldn’t get his own way he went on a rampage and started smashing up all the garden furniture and pots; kicked and dented the car and spat on the windows. Mum reluctantly called the police because of the requirement to do so by the insurance companies. She thought that maybe her son would learn his lesson if he was given a punishment other than loss of privileges or grounding. Jason got a supervision order with the youth offending service which he never complied with. No lesson learned there then.

Jason’s mum tried to persuade him to get help for his anger problems and drug usage but he wouldn’t engage. The criminal damage became a regular feature of life with Jason and then one day he beat his mother up because she tried to get him out of bed. She reported him to the police because she was now becoming very afraid of him. Her family didn’t want to get involved; he was now too old for social services to be involved and in any case HE wasn’t in danger.

Whilst the case was waiting to go to court Jason hit himself repeatedly in the face when his mum was trying to get him up for school and then rang 999 and reported his mother for assault. She had to go to the police station and give DNA, be fingerprinted and was even put in a cell. It was only when she pointed out that she was right handed and would not have been able to hit him at the side of the face his injuries were on that they let her go without charge.

Jason got yet another order with the youth offending service which again he didn’t comply with. By now mum was so afraid of him that with the help of the police she changed the locks and took out a non-molestation order. He was homeless for a while but got a place in hostel after a few weeks.

Jason’s mum could never quite let go, even though people advised her to and she kept on letting him come back home to live when he got evicted for not paying his rent. Then he got sent to a Youth Detention centre for a few weeks for being found in possession of a knife when picked up by the police.

Again she took him back into her home but nothing had changed and the old patterns were resurfacing. Letters were arriving about loans and telephone contracts that she hadn’t taken out - he was using her name to obtain goods by deception. She asked him to leave and he refused. An argument ensued in which he assaulted her so she called the police who said they would be there in ten minutes. Half an hour later they arrived and Jason had gone taking with him all of mums jewellery, cameras, credit cards and mobile phones.

This time he was sent to prison for another 8 weeks and came out and lived with his girlfriend and her baby for a while but that didn’t work out because of his drug usage and again he was homeless. His mum had thought he was sorting his life out so she had donated lots of furniture and household goods to the couple. They were all put in a skip and taken away by the council because he couldn’t get motivated enough to do anything about it.

Mum still kept giving him money and food so that he wouldn’t starve but he just spent the money on cigarettes, weed and alcohol. People say that cannabis isn’t addictive. Maybe not physically but Jason is psychologically addicted to it. His mum says he cannot function without it and gets angry and violent if he hasn’t got any.

Jason got a privately rented room but failed to pay his rent so was evicted yet again. And yes you guessed it; he ended up back at mums briefly until she had to ask him to leave again because the landlord wouldn’t allow him to stay. He then moved back into a hostel but gave up his tenancy (with lots of rent owing) and moved to another city because he had to get away from the drug dealers. He had no accommodation there and was put up by a friend who got fed up of him after a few weeks because he was lazy and swore too much. Homeless again...


How to practice Tough Love

What exactly do you have to do to show someone tough love? Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Do not keep bailing out your toxic teen; allow them to suffer the consequences of their actions
  • Make house rules and stick to them
  • Do not accept abusive of disrespectful behaviour. Make sure they are held to task if they behave this way by loss of some privilege or allowance
  • Allow them to sort out their own problems and do not be so ready to intervene and help them especially if the problems are self made
  • If your child is doing something illegal do not condone it. Instead tell them that if they don’t immediately stop you will report them to the authorities
  • If there is a substance misuse issue do not try to force them into getting help. Gather all the relevant information about professional help and say that you would like them to take advantage of it
  • If all else fails, consider asking them to leave and distance yourself from them as much as possible.
  • Cut off financial support
  • Get help from an organisation such as this one in Australia

The Future for Jason and his Mum

The story continues...

History has repeated itself so many times for Jason and his mum but now she has finally had enough and resolved to not help him anymore. She suddenly realised that she wasn’t really helping him at all and was just enabling him to continue his chaotic lifestyle. He has telephoned her several times from the new hostel for the homeless where he is living begging for money and she has given him the address of places where he can get a meal. She has been refusing to help him out for a few months now and keeping contact with him to a minimum. She has told him in no uncertain terms that she will do nothing more for him until he starts to help himself.

If the conversation becomes disrespectful or abusive she simply puts the phone down. She does not give him any money (although she has a bag of foodstuffs which she has kept for him just in case).

She isn’t about to hold her breath on the changes being permanent but there are some. Jason has begun to talk about getting some qualifications and a job possibly supporting people who are going through what he has been through. He says he’s stopped smoking cannabis. She says his voice sounds different somehow and there is hope but Jason’s mum hasn’t seen the proof yet that he is actually turning his life round so for the time being she will continue with the tough love.

There are many, many other incidents in the story of Jason and his mum. It would fill a whole book and some of them are far too personal for them to allow me to reveal here.

© 2013 Susan Bailey


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    • Sue Bailey profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Bailey 

      5 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

      Thanks pobblethecat. Keep checking back. I'm sure there will be further updates. Let's just hope they will be positive ones.

    • pobblethecat profile image

      Steph Broadbent 

      5 years ago from UK

      Really nicely put. Although we don't call it tough love it isn't tough when you have always done it. It gets easier as the kids begin to realise that if they mess it up they have to sort it out. Enjoyed the article, found the story really interesting.

    • Sue Bailey profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Bailey 

      5 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

      So happy it all worked out for you and your son Nell. Jason, I heard last week has recently been taking heroin and suffering from psychosis. Not sure in what order that happened. Sad, sad story but unfortunately all too common these days and not just in the UK.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      5 years ago from England

      Such a sad story Sue, and it happens even over here, thank goodness my son got out of it, he did take marijuana for a while, got a bit violent with the doors! but never me, but came round in the end, even at the time he always apologized for his behaviour. and now he is living with his girlfriend and has a great job.

    • Sue Bailey profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Bailey 

      5 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

      Currently Jason is contemplating change. He is still relapsing from time to time but slowly moving forward

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting and thought provoking hub, Sue. The situation involving Jason is very sad for both Jason and his mother. It definitely sounds like a case for tough love. I hope very much that the strategy helps.

    • Sue Bailey profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Bailey 

      5 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

      Thanks Abby. I'm glad you were largely spared the trials Jason's mum went and is still going through to some extent.

    • Abby Campbell profile image

      Dr Abby Campbell 

      5 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      Such a difficult topic for so many parents! Thank God I didn't have to go through a bunch of crud with my girls. My eldest is mentally handicapped, and I did go through tough times with her. However, that was expected knowing her mental capacity. But, I did have to use tough love with her a few times when she was growing up. Great hub, Sue! :-)

    • Sue Bailey profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Bailey 

      5 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

      Pamela I think you hit the nail on the head. Jason's mum I think felt responsible for a lot of his problems because she told the boys father to leave. She probably did relax the boundaries a little from time to time because of this and maybe that was how he gained control. Thanks for your comment.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 years ago from Sunny Florida

      This is such a good article on a tough subjecty, as addicted and out of control kids are very common anymore. Tough love? You bet. I think it is so important to set boundaries for children when they are young. It isn't tough love at this point. I think children feel safer when they have boundaries when they are young. I don't mean beating on them either. I am talking about time outs, etc.

      I also think sometimes when you have a parent issue like this boy did, you tend to feel sorry for the child because you love them. The dad was a jerk no doubt. However, we sometimes drop the boundaries for the wrong reasons and the child gets out of control. It is really a tough situation. I feel sorry for that boy's mother. It sounds like she tried everything and really didn't get any help from any of the agencies or the police. It is a heartbreaking situaltion. This is an excellent hub!

    • Sue Bailey profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Bailey 

      5 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

      In the UK there are a few local authority children's services that have been investigated for failures. Some have been declared unfit for purpose. The welfare of children shouldn't be bound by financial constraints or lack of resources. Thanks for your input.

    • Sue Bailey profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Bailey 

      5 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

      Thanks Suzie. It happens more than we think. People tend to assume its the husband or partner but quite often it's the adolescent or adult child. I used to work for a support organisation for victims of crime and saw this often. Thanks for the vote and the share.

    • CraftytotheCore profile image


      5 years ago

      Sue, great points. I find it sad that in today's society with so many issues children are facing that parents have to "fight" to get school-based psychological services. It should be automatic when there is an issue, but the school brings a budget to the table when parents bring their concerns. There are laws in many states which require services to be received yet the school turns a blind eye on too many occasions.

      I've worked with teens who have issues such as cutting themselves, starting fires, skipping school, etc. Sometimes parents don't want to face and deal with it. Other times they lack community support which prevents them from getting all of the potential help they could be receiving.

    • Suzie HQ profile image

      Suzanne Ridgeway 

      5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Hi Sue,

      Well done on tackling a difficult subject that unfortunately many families are affected by. I remember one woman I worked with in a department store who arrived into work one morning with face like she had been hit by bus. Cuts, bruises, swellings, black eyes . naturally she was not in any fit state to work and while saying it was a fall that caused these injuries, it came out she had been suffering for years at the hands of her son. She was a woman I was friendly with often sharing lunches and breaks together and I had no idea. Tough love is something that is tough to administer I would think. Necessary when all else fails as you showed in your story and faced with the choice of them ending up dead or shown tough love I know what I would choose, tough love has a place. Well done my friend, up, useful, interesting and shared.

    • Sue Bailey profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Bailey 

      5 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

      You are so right in everything you said. If you do get chance pass this on to your friend. I have another friend whose son was on heroin and crack (it's so common these days even in the best of families) and like Jason's mum it took her a while to realise what she was actually doing by giving him money and expensive gifts (which he sold to feed his habit). She had to withdraw too but people talked about her and said she was callous so she gave in a few times before she finally stuck to her resolve not to help him any more. He's clean now and a really nice lad with a wife and family.

    • bac2basics profile image


      5 years ago from Spain

      Hi Sue.

      I wish I could pass this on to a friend of mine because her son is an addict and obviously still using. He has taken every penny she has and more and it's got to the point were she is borrowing and doing without things herself in order to give him money but refuses to see he´s still using and we would no doubt fall out if I really told her what I thought was going on.

      I agree whole heartedly with tough love when all else fails and it´s a shame they don´t do interventions like the one´s I have seen on American television. No parent should have to deal with this on their own and need support and guidance to help get their out of control kids back on track. And I most definitely agree that when nothing a parent does makes a difference then separation has to come into play no matter how hard a decision it is. One of the things I really can´t understand is how parents can give their kids money which they know will go to fund a habit, it´s like giving them money to buy poison, and how will they feel when the police turn up on the doorstep one day to say their child has died of an overdose ? Surely tough love has to be better than all of this.


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