‘Tough-loving’ our kids

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"Tough love,” the famous phrase first coined by Bill Milliken in his book of the same name in 1968, is an expression used when someone treats another person with a firm hand, with the intent of helping them curtail negative behaviors. When raising kids, this tool is invaluable.

Your son comes home at 5 a.m., spends the rest of the day in bed, and won’t get up for school or work. Your daughter is out all night, refuses to answer her phone, lies about staying with friends and comes home the next morning. Your son walks in with alcohol on his breath, denies he was drinking, pushes past you and crashes till late the next day.

Your daughter gets ready to leave the house and you notice she is dressed in a way that will attract much attention while she walks down the street; you tell her to change her clothes and she refuses, slamming the door as she walks right past you.

Your son comes home looking stoned and reeking of pot; you try to talk to him and he answers aggressively.

You notice money missing from your wallet and no one had access to it but your son. You approach him and he denies it angrily, and storming out of the house.

What do you do? Unfortunately, these stories are not out of a book or a movie. They are very real, and more parents than not have dealt with or are dealing with similar situations.

Most of us are able to give our kids the upbringing we believe would allow them to flourish. We openly show affection towards them. We notice when they achieve meaningful goals. We encourage open communication and assure them that they can always turn to us. We show them that we love them unconditionally.

Then how could this have happened? So many factors are involved in the way our children grow up and the choices they make; it is actually a combination of nature vs nurture. Some kids require very little intervention and simply know what’s best for them.

Some kids need to be watched like hawks and still fall into – or should we say, jump into – dangerous situations.

Through the years we have seen the most creative and intelligent of kids make the poorest decisions. It boggles the mind how they can have so much going for them, yet be so willing to throw it away at the opportunity to walk on the edge. Many of these kids have been diagnosed with ADHD, which accounts for some of the “playing with fire” choices (more on that in the next article). But this is only part of the issue, if it is connected at all.

Where the need or desire to endanger themselves actually comes from can be explained in many ways, and of course is different with each kid. But besides making sure we are doing all of the things mentioned above to assure our child he is loved and respected, we must “toughlove” our kids.

Our children need brakes on their cars; they need us to say “no” and to be consistent, so that they know the rules way ahead of time. This doesn’t mean they will always observe the rules, but at least they will know what the alternative is should they choose not to follow them.

Kids may act out for many reasons; the classic reason is to get our attention. How often have we seen a family with a sickly child or a superstar who excels in everything, where the other sibling starts to act out? When this child begins to disobey his parents and stops playing by the rules, suddenly all of the attention is focused on him.

Another syndrome is kids with lack of self-esteem, who go out of their way to prove their theory about themselves being worthless and mess-ups – a self-fulfilling prophesy, if you may.

Down to brass tacks: What do we do to tough-love our kids in an effective and respectable way? Here are some important tools: Communication: “Honey, I see you going out of your way to get my attention. Is there anything going on that you would like to share?” “If you don’t feel comfortable sharing with me, is there someone else you feel safe sharing with? How can I help facilitate that?” As related in previous columns, communicate with “I messages”: “I feel scared when you come home late and I don’t know where you are. I wish you would call me and let me know that you are safe, and when I can expect you home.”

Contracts: Establish set rules with your kids about curfew, where they are allowed to stay if they are not coming home, what needs to be done before they go out, who they are allowed to hang out with if there are friends you do not trust, what the result will be of coming home past curfew, what is expected of them if they are running late, and what other consequences there will be for failing to answer their phones, doing poorly in school, not doing their chores, etc.

Rewards: It is easy for us to catch our children doing bad, as mentioned in previous columns. Not only should we catch them doing good, we should establish positive rewards for their special efforts to do the right thing. What privileges do they earn for sticking to the contract and making an effort? Alone time with you: Don’t wait for problems to set in before giving your kids attention; they vie for our attention and often feel like they have to act out to get it. Before all that begins, designate a time each week when you hang out together.

The earlier you establish this, the better. Already when they are tweens at age 10, if not even earlier kids are in need of that alone time with you. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as we all know.

So why not apply this to our kids and enjoy it as well? Initiate this weekly time before you need to spend it in a principal’s office, or worse.

The more time we spend alone with our kids, the more we get to know them and what they need from us. We are then more apt to notice when there is something wrong, and can more effectively nip it in the bud.

Consistency: Kids need to know we are serious: No means no, and yes means yes. Don’t change your mind; it makes kids feel insecure. Let them know from the start there is no bargaining, but at the same time, don’t be quick to say no. For every no, try to give a few yeses. Let them feel you truly want to make them happy and accommodate them, and that when you do say no it’s for their benefit, not yours.

The family team: Make sure everyone in the family is on-board. When you come up with rules, confirm that your partner is in agreement. Kids love to pit one parent against another, and this is never a good thing. Let them know you are on the same page, as are the other kids in the house. Make sure everyone knows the rules and understands they are for the well-being of the family as a whole.

Good references

"Tough Love" by Bill Milliken, available at Amazon.

The Ultimate Betrayal Or Just Tough Love?


Tracey Shipley CAAP, counsels teens, young adults and parents in Jerusalem, and is the founder of the Sobar Music Center Project (Facebook: Sobar Jerusalem).
She can be reached at 054-810-8918, jerusalemteencounseling@gmail.com, and on her web site.