Tough love delays recovery for people living with addiction to heroin or prescription pain killers like Vicodin or OxyContin.

Tough Love Defined

Tough love is a term used to describe dysfunctional behaviors by parents that are intended to help the addicted son or daughter, but instead cause harm by perpetuating the addiction.

I realize that this is not the standard definition of tough love.  In fact, it is the standard definition of enabling.

The term enabling is often used to describe dysfunctional behaviors by parents that are intended to help the addicted son or daughter, but instead cause harm by perpetuating the addiction.

The Problem

Tough love is sold to parents as the antidote to enabling.  But all too often, tough love behaviors are more destructive than the behaviors they replaced.  They increase the risk of harm to the addicted love one, delay recovery and perpetuate the addiction.

Parents are often torn in two directions between the polar extremes of “enabling” and “tough love.”  They cycle between the two extremes in an agony of confusion, painful emotions and good intentions gone awry.

More Problems
  • Tough love is not effective
  • Tough love is often adopted in the context of feelings of anger, frustration, confusion and desperation
  • Tough love is often applied in a rigid, black and white manner that negates the need to recognize and accept responsibility for the consequences of our own actions, or even exercise basic common sense
  • Tough love behaviors are often inconsistently applied
  • Tough love behaviors are often motivated by the parent’s own legitimate personal need to set appropriate boundaries, but mis-labeled as tough love for the addict
  • Tough love behaviors deprive the struggling addict of an important source of appropriate support
  • Tough love behaviors fail to address real barriers to recovery (and call it a virtue) and instead impose new barriers to recovery
  • Tough love “theory” implies that parents have caused or perpetuated their child’s addiction by “enabling” and so must remedy the harm they have caused through tough love
Even More Problems
  • Tough love is not necessary to create the conditions needed for recovery
  • Tough love is not enough to create the conditions needed for recovery
  • Tough love makes it harder to create the conditions necessary for recovery
  • Tough love perpetuates barriers to recovery (and often even creates new barriers to recovery), and then blames the addict for not changing
  • Tough love shames and blames parents who take reasonable steps to keep their loved one safe and promote the stability necessary for recovery
  • Tough love is a blunt instrument used to try to club an addict into change-and it is handed to parents in place of more sophisticated recovery tools that are more effective, less risky and less harmful
  • Tough love counsels parents to withhold conditions of safety and promote (or at least permit) conditions of unnecessary risk
  • Tough love doesn’t work!  Tough love does not result in recovery
  • Tough love delays recovery
My Suggestion

My suggestion is that parents move away from the black and white thinking that much of recovery folklore seeks to impose on them.

My suggestion is that parents avoid the polar extremes of both enabling and tough love, and instead adopt moderate behaviors based on both reasonable personal boundaries and common sense recovery supports for their addicted love one.


I’ve outlined the problem and suggested a solution.  But we can explore some concrete examples in the comments, if you like.

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