Addiction Coping and Recovery Is Tough Love Effective in Treating Addiction? By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada. Learn about our editorial process Updated on April 06, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by John C. Umhau, MD, MPH, CPE Medically reviewed by John C. Umhau, MD, MPH, CPE John C. Umhau, MD, MPH, CPE is board-certified in addiction medicine and preventative medicine. He is the medical director at Alcohol Recovery Medicine. For over 20 years Dr. Umhau was a senior clinical investigator at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Learn about our Medical Review Board Print altrendo images/Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents What Is Tough Love? Examples Does Tough Love Work? Tough Love vs. Boundaries Alternatives to Tough Love Tough love is a common expression used to describe any behavior that is a firm, sometimes cold, approach to handling another person's actions. It is somewhat controversial, particularly when used in the treatment of certain disorders, such as drug addiction or other addictive behaviors. This article discusses how tough love works and whether this approach is effective. It also discusses how tough love differs from setting healthy boundaries and some alternative approaches that can be more effective. What Is Tough Love? Author Bill Milliken first introduced the expression "tough love" in his book, Tough Love, published in 1968. There are several ways that tough love is used in everyday language. Most commonly, it is used to describe any type of parenting in which a child experiences some negative emotions as part of a learning process. While the term tough love has become very popular in a variety of contexts ranging from parenting to relationships, it cannot be used effectively in all situations, including addiction. Tough love can also refer to a positive approach to parenting in which the child learns valuable lessons in a way that is supportive and preserves the dignity of the child. This can include a healthy set of firm boundaries, common in authoritative parenting styles. It can also refer to abusive parenting styles in which humiliation, belittling or physical violence are used to control the child. For instance, a parent may use tough love against their adult child who has not gotten a job. The parents practicing tough love would withhold paying bills and would let the child deal with the consequences, such as late payments or bill collection, rather than swooping in and fixing the problem. In a harmful example of tough love, a parent would belittle or physically injure a child for failing to get a good grade or complete their chores. Having consequences can change behavior, but this is an extreme example that can have long-lasting negative repercussions. Recap Tough love can refer to a range of behaviors, some of which are positive and some of which are negative. When used effectively, it can mean detaching with love or setting healthy boundaries. When used ineffectively, it can be harsh, punishing, and even abusive. What Not to Say to Someone With a Substance Use Problem Examples of Tough Love for Addiction Tough love often involves withholding assistance when a person is using a substance. It can also involve demanding that the other person enter compulsory treatment. Examples of tough love might include: Confronting the person and insisting that they enter treatment or face serious consequences, such as the termination of the relationshipKicking someone out of their home if they refuse to go to rehabNot answering calls or texts when it seems like the individual is high or inebriatedRefusing to pick someone up if they need a ride home because they are intoxicated While such actions may be rooted in a desire to get the other person to get help, they are also likely to backfire and potentially contribute to further problems. While tough love may appear to be effective in the short-term, it can actually worsen the condition and lead to dangerous relapses later on. Does Tough Love Work? Research suggests that compulsory drug treatment may not improve outcomes. Approaches that encourage voluntary treatment may be more effective in getting people to initiate and maintain abstinence. For example, one study found that confrontational approaches such as tough love are often viewed as unhelpful by people who are experiencing addiction. Instead, interventions that focus on offering practical support tend to be more effective. In particular, tough love has been identified as a dangerous technique in handling teens or adults struggling with addictions, such as those who engage in substance use. Some treatment centers use the term tough love to refer to a harsh approach that breaks down the will of the person. Tough love can have its place in addiction treatment, but it should not be used without input from a physician or therapist. If you have a child or loved one struggling with addiction, seek out an addiction therapist for a consultation on how you can help your loved one. A therapist can advise you on the best approaches and boundaries to help your loved one recover in a sustainable way. Tough Love vs. Setting Boundaries Instead of tough love, healthy boundaries are often a more effective and sustainable solution. Your boundaries are the limits to what you are willing to accept in a relationship. Healthy boundaries should be clearly communicated. It is also essential to maintain these boundaries by following through with consequences. Examples of boundaries for dealing with addiction include: Not allowing drugs or alcohol in your homeNot giving another person money to pay for drugs or alcoholProhibiting driving under the influence of drugs or alcoholRefusing to make excuses for another person's actions Explain these boundaries to the individual. Using "I feel" statements can help express your feelings without being confrontational or accusatory. Recap Rather than focusing on simply using a "tough love" approach to dealing with a loved one who has an addiction, learning how to establish healthy boundaries can be more effective. Alternatives to Tough Love While tough love can sometimes force people with substance and alcohol use disorders into treatment, research suggests that more empathetic, voluntary approaches are more effective. For example, studies have shown that a program known as Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) can help people encourage their loved ones to seek treatment. The program uses behavioral principles to reduce substance use, encourage treatment, and reduce the stress felt by the individual's loved ones. Using the CRAFT approach, loved ones reinforce positive behaviors and avoid reinforcing negative behaviors. The approach is not only more compassionate, it also tends to be much more effective. While it may take time to get the individual to voluntarily seek treatment, research suggests that it is often effective. In one study, 74% of participants were able to eventually get their loved one to enter addiction treatment. Recap The CRAFT approach is an effective alternative to tough love. Where tough love approaches often lead to resentment and resistance, CRAFT can help families reduce stress while encouraging loved ones to seek addiction treatment. A Word From Verywell While tough love is often rooted in a desire to help, it is often applied in an ineffective or even harmful way. Rather than responding with actions that are overly harsh, authoritative, or uncaring, empathetic approaches tend to be more effective. Establishing healthy boundaries can be a way to avoid enabling addiction while also encouraging your loved one to get the help they need. Also consider talking to your healthcare provider about the CRAFT approach, which teaches family members how to use behavioral strategies to reduce substance use and encourage treatment. 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Developing community reinforcement and family training (CRAFT) for parents of treatment-resistant adolescents. J Child Adolesc Subst Abuse. 2015;24(3):155-165. doi:10.1080/1067828X.2013.777379 Lee K. An underappreciated intervention. Monitor on Psychology. 2017;48(11). By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Get Treatment for Addiction Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.