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  • Writer's pictureReena Bernards

Putting the Love Back into Tough Love

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

Ever since Bill Milliken, a Christian minister working with at-risk youth in New York’s lower East Side, wrote a book in 1968 by the title, Tough Love, the phrase he coined has caught on like hot cakes.  It is used by people in the field of education, by addiction programs, by parenting counselors, by sports coaches, even by legislators making policy about food stamps and social welfare.  Yet as Milliken recently acknowledges, the concept has been used to justify disciplinary programs that are harsh, even abusive.  Yet much truth resides in his concept, and one that parents can learn and grow from in ways that will positively affect their children.


Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines ‘tough love’ as “a disciplinary technique, as for a young person or a loved one, in which a seemingly harsh or unfeeling course of action is chosen deliberately over one demonstrating the tenderness or forbearance instinctively felt.”  This definition acknowledges that tough love is hard to do.  It is hard to deny someone we love something because we know they are on a path of self-destructive behaviors.  It is necessary for boundaries to be set and limits exerted.

Yet often there is a mistaken notion underneath the implementation of tough love, which is that a person has to feel pain, humiliation, or isolation in order to change.  This is contrary to what we know about human beings, which is that we are social animals, in need of connection, affection and love.  We thrive and grow when we feel emotionally safe and connected to the people most important in our lives. This raises the question of how to implement discipline and at the same time express affection and love.

There are three types of parenting approaches. The authoritarian parent tries to mold a child through clear discipline, boundaries and expectations.  A permissive parent attempts to guide a child through nurturance, understanding and affection.  An authoritative parent combines both clear boundaries as well as nurturance and encouragement.   Most experts agree that an authoritative approach yields the best results.  This is a version of “tough love” that doesn’t forget to nurture, while being tough at the same time.

Parents often ask, “How can I express my affection for my child while I am disciplining them?  I’m too mad at them.  Besides, isn’t that giving into poor behavior?”

Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel explains that when a child is upset or misbehaving, their rational brain is off-line and their emotional brain has taken over.  He calls this “flipping the lid.”  The job of the adult is to help the child become emotionally regulated, and then engage the rational brain so that they can learn a new lesson.

Here are some ways to put love back into tough love:

  1. Listen to your child first. “Wow, you look really upset. What happened?”

  2. Acknowledge their feelings, even as you set a boundary. “I understand that you are sad. You really wanted to go on that playdate. Its hard to see you so upset. When you are calm I can help you plan one for a better time.”

  3. Take a “time-out” yourself. “I’m sorry, I’m really upset right now. I’m going to take some time alone myself and when I’m calm we can figure this out.

  4. Take a “time-in” with your child. Time-outs don’t work for all children all the time. Sometimes it just makes them feel alone and disconnected from you.  You can create a comfortable place on the couch where the two of you can sit and talk (or cry if they need to.)

  5. Connect, then correct (or redirect). Children can’t hear the overarching lesson while they are upset. Only later, once they are emotionally regulated (with our help), are they open to hearing how their behavior should change.  “Now that you’re calmed down, I want you to know that I love you too much to let you do that dangerous activity.”

  6. There’s always time for a hug. Even when you are setting a limit, or showing your child that they made a poor choice, there is always time to be physically connected and affectionate. The message is that you love them, even as you dislike their behavior.

The bottom line is that we want our children to know that just as we will be tough on bad behavior, we will be unconditional in our love for them.


Milliken, Bill, with Char Meredith (1968), Tough Love, Old Tappan, N.J: Fleming H. Revell Company

Milliken, Bill, address to National Campaign to Stop the Violence, Sept. 9, 2009.

Bryson, T. and Siegel, D. (2014), No-Drama Discipline: The whole-brain wya to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind. N.Y: Bantom Books.


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