There’s a lot of talk about tough love, especially from people who mean well when you share your concerns about your kids. The old definition of tough love was “No more, we’re done, you’re out of here.” There are some kids who turn it around with that kind of ultimatum. And then there are plenty who do not. Either way, there can be long-term fallout for so many of them.
A mom I know recently confided that her 19-year old son lives at home, doesn’t work and doesn’t go to school. He refuses to help out around the house, and he berates her. Her well-intentioned friends offered all kinds of advice and support, including ‘kick him out.’ It’s an extreme decision, not to mention heart-breaking.
It’s important to consider that the goal of punishment, consequences, and tough love is for our kids to learn something that will help them be more successful – at school, work, in relationships, and loving themselves. When kids are behaving badly, it’s usually because there is something going on that they don’t know how to fix. They may not even know what it is, just that they’re stuck or hurting.
It could be the need for good old-fashioned limits and boundaries, mental health issues, or social pressures. But when the first option is ‘kick him out’ before considering other things (including, or especially, our words and decisions as parents), then you’re starting with the last resort option.
For those who would say that this is mushy psychobabble, how would you answer these questions?
* How happy are you with yourself?
* Where do you struggle?
* Do you carry wounds from your own growing up years, from your parents? They did the best they could, but did it all work out well? (Yes, you’ve become functioning, responsible adults. But there are hurts that nobody talks about, that we push down so we don’t have to feel pain or disloyalty to parents. Make no mistake, eventually they show up, somewhere, and it’s no fun when they do.)
*Is this what you want to pass along to your children?
Back to the mom and her 19-year old. What would he learn if she ‘tough loves him’ and kicks him out without trying other strategies first?
* She’s given up on me.
* She doesn’t understand what’s really going on.
* I am alone and lost.
* What am I supposed to learn from this?
* Is this what love looks like?
Mom feels helpless. Kicking her son out might seem like the only option because she doesn’t know what other options there are. And she’s heard so much about tough love, maybe it’s just what this kid needs. Feeling powerless to change a situation or to influence someone causes people to make extreme, emotionally-based decisions.
Change begins with you, the parent. When your child behaves badly, you do have power, personal power. It’s up to you to get stronger and wiser, and to set boundaries and limits and stick to them. (Remember: only set a boundary if you are 100% sure you will stick to it.) You cannot control your child’s behavior, but you can learn to control your own reactions and responses, to be loving and firm.
Your job, like the mom in the story, is to prepare your child for the adult world by recreating real world expectations at home, and giving him opportunities to learn to be self-sufficient, productive, and respectful. Knowing how to do that takes time and practice. Seek guidance. Your child is counting on you to show him the way. There are many steps before the tough love of ‘kick him out’ that can break the cycle and transform lives.