Interventions With Heart: Tough Love May Save Your Child’s Life

July 30, 2018

A father with his hand on his son's shoulder

In an ideal family, parents provide their children with unconditional and consistent care and love. The hope is that parents accept their children just as they are, and provide those children with a safe place to land if they make mistakes. The door is always open to the child, no matter what that child may do.

But let’s be clear about this ideal: The most successful families have healthy boundaries. Unconditional love is not an open invitation or open acceptance for a teen or young adult to continue a drug or alcohol addiction without accepting treatment. “Tough love” is still love, and healthy rules and boundaries can help save a child you care about.

What Can Parents Do When An Adult Child is Addicted?

Before you fall into a cycle of feeling shame or guilt, know that parents cannot hold all of the blame for an adult child’s addiction. Parents can have greater control over adolescents than adults, which may enable parents to insist upon treatment with greater success, but even then, a child makes his or her own choices to some extent. Addiction is a physical and mental condition that can be blamed on a number of factors.

Parents and family members do hold one responsibility. Family members must be responsible for their own reactions and behaviors when it comes to their loved one’s addiction.

Studies do show that enabling addicted children (including adolescents) will lead those young people to continue in their substance use.1 After all, why would anyone begin a big process of life change if there are no true incentives to change? If you find yourself continually making excuses, offering financial help, or have begun to feel that the situation in your family is unmanageable, you may need to start using tough love.

What is a “Tough Love” Intervention All About?

Many interventionists suggest that tough love can turn addiction situations around. When you use tough love in an intervention, you will lay out consequences for behavior that are clear and direct, and then steer the addicted person to either make the right choice or face those consequences.

In a tough-love approach, help is no longer available if the addicted person will not change. It’s a radical adjustment for some families to make, and not all families agree that it is the best approach to take.

The History of the Tough Love Approach

The term “tough love” was first applied to an addiction model in the 1980s, when David and Phyllis York wrote an influential book about the addiction and rehabilitation of their daughter. In their book, Toughlove, the authors outlined a new way for parents to interact with their addicted children.2

In this method, the child is told that drinking and drug use are simply unacceptable, and then pre-chosen treatment options are immediately presented for the child. If he or she refuses to comply, then he or she will be asked to leave the home. Parents were told to stand firm to this model no matter what, and encourage their children to explore the negative consequences of noncompliance.

The thinking behind this model is that parents are in control of the household, while the child is in control of his or her own behavior. If the child will not accept the rules of the house, the child wasn’t allowed to stay in the house. When faced with that choice, the thinking went, the child would pick sobriety.

Therapists began to apply this approach with adults as well as children and, over time, the tough love approach has been softened and refined. Aspects of tough love are now often included in intervention programs.

Tough Love in Modern Interventions

In a standard intervention, the intervention specialist meets with the family to talk about the addicted person’s behavior and the effect that behavior has on the family. Then, the family holds a meeting with the addicted person, and the family confronts their loved one about the behavior while providing treatment solutions. In the tough love approach, the family also outlines consequences that will occur if the addicted person doesn’t change.

The consequences of not choosing recovery can vary depending on the level of the addiction and the damage it is causing to the family.

For example, if the addicted person will not change, the family might:

  • Take legal custody of the addicted person’s children.
  • Refuse to provide any sort of financial assistance.
  • Ask the addicted person to leave the home.
  • Refuse to provide bail money, legal assistance, or money for bills.
Some intervention specialists see tough love as a way to persuade the addicted person. They may ask family members to write consequences down and avoid sharing those consequences during the intervention. The consequences are turned into a “bottom line” that can be shared only as needed. If the addicted person refuses recovery help, the intervention specialist can share the consequences and hopefully provide enough of a shock to keep the addict on the proper path.

Other intervention specialists consider the tough love approach a method to protect the family from further pain.

The consequences the family outlines may not help the addicted person change, but they can keep the addicted person’s children and other family members from witnessing their loved one’s addiction-related downfall and/or suffering the consequences along with the addicted person. If the addicted person refuses to change, the family must move on without that person. This may be particularly helpful if the addicted person is abusive, impulsive, or liable to threaten the health and safety of the family members.

Not all interventions require this level of consequence. Loving assurance and stories of how much the addicted person means to the family as a whole — the “love” part of tough love — is an important first step before the “tough” consequences become known. Hopefully, all addicted people will realize that they matter and that their actions can impact the people they love.

How to Successfully Offer Tough Love

Successful tough love has some guidelines. For instance:

  • Boundaries are clear. Some addicted people respond well when they know just how much they stand to lose by their addictive behavior. Keeping those consequences in mind can help motivate them to change.
  • Families are protected and empowered. If the addicted person simply will not change, the family members can move forward alone and focus on their own health.
  • Power is shifted. Many families feel controlled by the addiction of just one person. By defining the problem and outlining what they will do, they empower themselves to fight.
  • It can be effective. Addicted people do not respond to enabling behavior. When they hear a litany of real consequences, it can break through the armor of addiction and allow them to listen and change.

Criticism of the Tough Love Approach

Criticism of the tough love approach varies because people define “tough love” in different ways. There is not a set clinical definition of this approach. It is important to learn more about addiction and addiction treatment before you begin any approach to treatment. Addiction is defined as a chronic brain disease that changes the way that the brain functions at a molecular level. Addiction behavior touches the motivation, reward, and memory centers of the brain. There is a genetic component to addiction, and often, more than one family member will struggle with addiction at the same time.

Addiction does cause people to make bad decisions. It can lead to a spiral of unhealthy, embarrassing, or dangerous behavior followed by guilt and shame.

However, people who struggle with addiction are not bad people. It is important to understand this before beginning any approach, especially the “tough love” approach.

If anger and resentment have blocked your ability to interact with your loved one, you may want to consider counseling for yourself and your family. Some unresolved anger and issues may prevent your intervention from being as successful as possible. Fortunately, with the right help, you can recover as a family.

Addicted people can’t simply decide to stop their behavior suddenly, no matter what the consequences are, due to those changes in the brain. However, they can accept help when it is offered. Be sure that the help you offer is effective enough to make a difference. Residential treatment and alcohol or drug detox programs make a huge difference and help physically addicted people with a thorough diagnosis, well-rounded treatment, and around-the-clock assistance during those vital first stages of recovery.

Be sure to deliver any intervention message in the most empowering way possible. Tough love can help your loved one accept treatment, but addiction is a disease as well, so it does require medical assistance. In order to offer tough love effectively, you must also offer your loved one some way to call for treatment options, visit treatment programs or groups, learn about, or enter treatment. In some cases, this may involve providing a list of phone numbers, in others, it may involve the offer for treatment.

A Takeaway Message

Every addicted person and every addiction is a bit different, and some methods that work for one person simply do not work for others. Research does show that families may benefit greatly from speaking with an intervention specialist to help schedule, structure, define, and administer any type of intervention.

Families that have been subjected to years of addictive behavior may have years of pent-up anger just waiting to explode. It would be easy for these families to skip ahead in an intervention and move directly into threats and consequences. When an addicted person is subjected to this sort of conversation, hostilities can develop and the family can become further fractured.

An intervention specialist can help the family develop healthy boundaries and consequences, ensuring consequences are presented loving and supportive way. The addicted person is more likely to listen when he or she isn’t being attacked.

A tough love intervention should end with some sort of call to therapy. Simply asking a person to change, without providing any sort of tools to help that person change, is underestimating the strength of the addiction.


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