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The Pros and Cons of Tough Love: A Mom and Daughter Debate

What happens when a teen feels one way about a particular issue or problem and the parent has a very different take? At Your Teen, we understand that sometimes you need to look at a problem from multiple perspectives. It can also be helpful to hear from a neutral third party. That’s when we bring in a parenting expert to provide the practical advice you need to bridge the divide and help restore harmony. In what follows, a parent and teen discuss whether tough love is effective, and an expert offers her perspective.

Daughter Faith Spalding Headshot Teen | Faith Spalding

As the oldest kid, I’ve always been self-directed. I don’t need much of a push to make sure my room is clean, my homework is done, or that I help with kitchen clean-up. Naturally, I feel that I am somewhat entitled to trust as the leader of the kids in my family, and I don’t need parents constantly on my back making sure I have everything together.

Like any other normal teenager, I act out sometimes. So when my moment came and I got Snapchat without permission, I felt that my punishment was too harsh. I was grounded for weeks, and my parents said I had lost their trust. As someone who had been very consistent in my family, I felt that this was not fair. My mom is an amazing parent, but she can be tough. She took this incident as an indicator of future possible mess-ups, so she took a “tough love” approach to my situation.

Tough love can mean anything from forced punishment to verbal abuse, which was a far cry from my situation. But now, every little thing I did was held under scrutiny. It was as if I was a pre-teen again. My mom picked fights with me constantly, and while taking responsibility for my actions was important, I felt resentful of my punishment.

Looking back, my punishment was nowhere close to the end of the world. But tough love parenting just didn’t work for me.

Everything my mom did and said came out of a place of anger toward me, rather than wanting to appeal to the part of me that was willing to listen. I can attest to the fact that if you try to help someone but you do it grudgingly and from a place of anger toward that person, the supposed “love” you’re supposed to be receiving as a kid doesn’t feel very loving at all.

Once my mom and I took a closer look at our responses to each other, we were able to communicate and work through our problems (not without a couple of yelling matches and a couple of therapy sessions). As hard as it can be, a caring approach, where my mom and I forgave each other, yielded a MUCH better result—and a better relationship with my mom than even before.

Faith Spalding is a high school sophomore residing in Los Angeles, California. She recently attended the School of the New York Times and plans to go back this summer.  


Parent Rachel Spalding Headshot Parent | Rachel Spalding

When Faith started acting out, I felt like it was a turning point. She had gotten in with a new group, including one girl whose mother told me the kid was vaping. Faith was starting high school, and she seemed lost, different from the way she was in middle school. I instinctively knew that if she wasn’t watched carefully, her talents as a gifted learner might be lost in a haze of high-school partying among an image-heavy friend group. After all, we live in Los Angeles—capital of excess.

My youth in LA in the 80s was a time of total benign neglect. Things were less stressful for me and my peers—but on the other hand, no one pushed us to be our best. If you were floundering, either with friends or at school, adults didn’t notice.

So, I promised myself I’d never be a “checked-out” mom. From Faith’s perspective, I understand she felt I overreacted to her getting Snapchat—because I did. I’d heard stories of Snapchat being a problem because, for example, users’ bullying chats can get erased, so there’s no proof afterwards.

I’ll be honest: I was steamed when I caught her after an acquaintance of mine saw her posting that she was at a restaurant with friends. I had just reiterated to her that she could get social media—but not Instagram. She had assured me she understood. And when she got caught, she was defensive. She didn’t seem sorry at all; she told me she thought my rule about Snapchat was stupid.

My response, naturally, was, to get all authoritarian on her.

She would have to toe the line until I could be assured she understood the rules. Things weren’t going to be HER way; they were going to be MY way.

With some perspective, I can see that this parenting style doesn’t always work: I think I do best when I’m working WITH my kids, not AGAINST them. That period with Faith was like pushing a rock up a mountain; I was working against the flow. Thankfully she and I have matured together in our responses to one another and in our relationship. I will always believe that my high expectations for my kids are the right thing, rather than not asking them to be their best because I want to be a “fun” parent. “Tough love” doesn’t work—but healthy boundaries always will.

Rachel Spalding is getting her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of California, Riverside and has written for many publications and websites including the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and PopSugar.com.


Expert | Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Rachel and Faith had a lot of strengths going for them as they faced this crisis of trust and disobedience. Faith admitted that she deserved consequences for getting Snapchat without permission. She described herself as responsible with school, chores, and family expectations. She showed self-awareness when she admitted that she had a burst of “acting out” as a typical teenager.

Faith’s mother Rachel was equally impressive in her self-reflections, understanding that she may have gotten “all authoritarian” about Faith’s misstep because she was so determined not to reenact the shortcomings of her own childhood experience with “checked-out” parenting. I wish all my clients possessed the insight and perspective-taking demonstrated by this mother-daughter duo!

A punishment that lasts for “weeks and weeks” can be overkill and lead to a backlash of more—not less—of the undesirable behavior a parent is trying to discourage.

The word “discipline” comes from the Latin root “discere”, which means “to teach.” Parents want to ask themselves, “Is this punishment teaching the lesson I want or just nursing wounds of resentment toward me?”

Faith understands that she lost trust by her impulsive disobedience. But the loss was mutual—Faith also lost some trust in her mom.

Rachel worried about her daughter starting high school and falling in with some suspected bad influences. She grounded Faith and declared things were going to be “her way” with the hope that it would protect her daughter from perceived harms in her expanded social life. Rachel’s reasoning is understandable, even though her judgment did cost her some credibility from her daughter’s perspective.

Rachel and Faith were able to recover from this crisis not only because Rachel’s “love” was greater than her “tough” authoritarian parenting, but because they both committed to a process of listening and mutual understanding—what Faith calls the “caring” approach.

As a parenting concept, “tough love” has so much baggage at this point that it ceases to be useful. Harsh punishment in the name of love is problematic. Research indicates that over-punitive reactions to child wrongdoing is not effective for motivating good behavior, but parents often lower the boom touting “tough love” to defend such practices.

As Rachel wisely points out, excessive discipline and authoritarian parenting are not good solutions to a teen’s disobedience—collaboration and healthy boundaries are.

Laura Kastner, Ph.D. is a clinical professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at University of Washington and the author of Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Raising Tweens and Teens and Wise-Minded Parenting: 7 Essentials for Raising Tweens and Teens.

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