‘Tough Love’ or just ‘Love is too Tough’

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‘Tough Love’ or just ‘Love is too Tough’


While I was completing my clinical training as a psychologist I had the opportunity to spend time working under Professor Mark Dadds, a world-renown researcher in the area of parenting difficult children. I recall a conversation with him about the worst-of-the-worst children, the ones that seemed broken, lacking in empathy, and often damaging in their relationships with others, during which I asked him what the solution seemed to be for these children. Quite surprisingly, he responded “love”. But then it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. I had been working in the clinic he supervised, using a treatment manual he had written with a colleague, and as I reflected on the treatment program, I realised that it was at the core of the program.

Most of the families that came into the treatment program were seeking discipline strategies and ways to manage the difficult behaviour in their children. And yet the starting point of the program had always been not to focus on dealing with the misbehaviour, but instead to start with the affirmation and encouragement of positive behaviours. It had been recognised that there was no point in teaching discipline and management of difficult behaviours, if this was
going to be applied in a context where there would be a lack of warmth, affirmation, and encouragement. It simply wouldn’t work. In essence, it became extremely difficult, if not impossible, to discipline in the absence of applied love.

Dr John Gottman’s research around the ‘magic ratio’ of relationships (theresearch being largely related to marriages) has suggested that a healthy relationship needs to have 5 times as many positive interactions as there are negative interactions (a ratio of 5:1). I suspect that what Professor Dadds had also recognised was that the key to the relationships between children and their parents was not simply related to the ability to manage difficult behaviours, ocassionally giving some warmth or encouragement, but in fact the act of practically living out the love in the relationship with children was central to the ability to deal with difficult behaviour.

I often meet with parents who are struggling with managing child behaviour and I often find myself having conversations with parents who explain to me that they were not affirmed or encouraged when they were growing up, or that love and affection was conditional on good behaviour. They express that they don’t want their children to be spoilt or to grow up being arrogant or ‘soft’ and unable to handle the big bad world, discipline helping their children to toughen up and prepare for the challenges of life. The trouble is that the research is pretty clear on this one, discipline doesn’t work without love. And although the world may be a confronting space, I don’t believe we should be preparing our children as soldiers in order to protect them from this world, but instead preparing them to be patient, kind, faithful, gentle, self-controlled, able to experience joy, peaceful, good, and above all, loving, so that they can have an impact on this world.

So there are times when I hear people talk about ‘tough love’ and yet the sense I get is that it is more a case of ‘love is too tough’. If the research is right, then we need to work as parents at staying warm, affirming, affectionate, and encouraging. We work on ourselves to get better at expressing our emotions, and being verbal and physical with our affection. We understand that this is the essential key to effective discipline, and that it has to be a louder experience for children than the voice of correcting misbehaviour.

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