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Has Tough-Love Therapy Gone Too Far?

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It’s no secret that we’re a society of tough-love advocates. Simply turn on the TV, and any self-help series has at least one critical, blunt caregiver or role model trying to motivate participants wanting to change for the better. Each week, we can watch Dr. Phil, The Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michaels, Simon Cowell, and countless others offer no-nonsense opinions and advice that often incite anger, frustration, and crying jags before they inspire change. 

Even kids aren’t spared from this harsh treatment. Talk shows like Maury Povich are especially keen on sending troubled youth to boot camp, where so-called drill sergeants can scare the disrespect right out of them. Obviously, there’s a part of us that believes in tough love’s effectiveness (or at least in its voyeuristic enjoyment factor)—that it takes rigid discipline and brutal honesty to make a weak individual stronger or a willful child obedient. But is adopting a severe, reproachful stance the best way to teach or help anybody? 

A Tale of Two Methods
Demos, a think tank in the UK, conducted a study involving nine thousand families in which researchers followed each family for eight years (ending in 2009) and paid close attention to their parenting styles and the children’s behavioral patterns. Based on their findings, they concluded that the most successful parenting style—the one that fostered successful emotional development the most—was a tough-love approach. In this study, tough love was defined as a balance of “warmth” and “discipline,” which seems like something most parents would strive for. 

Critics of the study believe that the term was used inappropriately, and perhaps that’s true in light of what many of us think of as tough love. But others believe that children are so overprotected and overpraised these days that some parents would consider any kind of discipline stern. In their book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman argue that too much focus on building up kids’ self-esteem actually hurts them in the long run. Their research has found that such “excessive praise” negatively affects motivation and emotional well-being. 

The definition of tough love when it comes to parenting varies from person to person, but it’s clear that children do best when they have clear boundaries and feel safe and supported operating within them. The same goes for managers in the workplace—the best ones don’t just demand respect; they earn it from their employees by acting fair, being supportive, critiquing without belittling, and following through on promises. 

Taking Help Too Far
Showing a little bit of tough love when it’s appropriate—for example, putting a child in a time-out for throwing a tantrum, or disciplining an employee who’s been underperforming—is necessary sometimes. The problems start when it’s taken way too far, as we see happening on television these days. People who already suffer from self-esteem issues are subject to what some would consider verbal abuse under the guise of helping them. Kids are subject to strict rules and overbearing, detached authority figures who claim to be teaching them “respect.” Presumably, this extreme version is to garner public interest and increase ratings, but similar examples are found in real life, too, in the form of overbearing caregivers, teachers, and bosses. 

“The tough-love method doesn’t encourage positive or realistic change,” argues Sarah Duval, a social worker for a California-based public-assistance facility. She believes that there’s too much of an emphasis on individuals’ finding the strength within to get better, rather than relying on others. “Independence and self-management are important,” she maintains, “but they’re often ineffective without some outside support.” When someone’s battling an issue that stems from low self-esteem (and many issues are triggered by this), what that person needs to hear is support and validation; putting harsh, undue pressure on him or her could only exacerbate the problem. 

In her work, Sarah’s found the most success working with clients toward change, instead of requiring them to meet certain standards and punishing them if they don’t. This isn’t to say that she doesn’t establish rules and necessary consequences, but her version of treatment doesn’t revolve around them. “Having encouragement throughout the process of change allows for a person to build up self-esteem and may make the changes more successful,” she says. She’s speaking within the public-assistance realm, but the same could be said for kids who need boundaries, people who want to lose weight, or those looking to make sweeping transitions in their life. 

Tough Love Toned Down
Browbeating themselves—or, worse, paying someone else to do it for them—might motivate some people, but it’s the wrong kind of motivation. Treatment that utilizes fear and self-loathing isn’t effective on a long-term basis when the problem is rooted in self-esteem or insecurity issues. However, being too scared to criticize or find fault isn’t a successful method either. 

Popular media depictions would have us believe that these are the only choices that exist anymore. Luckily for us, that isn’t the case. What we need is a return to the kind of tough love the researchers at Demos advocated—i.e., not the kind we see on TV shows, but the kind that’s tempered by positivity, kindness, and the use of critique as helpful advice, instead of a way to shame or scare someone into action. Using the researchers’ definition, we could all use a little tough love, whether we’re looking to improve our own lives or help others improve theirs.


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