Is Tough Love Effective in Treating Addiction?

The Truth About Tough Love — Caron Treatment Centers

Is Tough Love Effective in Treating Addiction?

Families seeking treatment often have the idea that the way to deal with addiction is through “tough love,” which seems harsh, unkind, and merciless. What we learn, though, in treating families with addiction, treatment isn’t about tough love at all — it is about healing, and the process of healing can often be very tough.

The key question we ask families to consider: Is the way they currently provide love — tough or otherwise — helping the person they love while working for the family as a whole? If not, then we must help the family make a change in the way they provide or express love.

This expression of love might look different, but it’s still love.

What about unconditional love?

Sometimes, when I’m having this conversation about tough love with a family, I get questions about unconditional love. “You’ll never tell me not to love them,” I’m told, or, “I’ll always love them unconditionally.” Yes, unconditional love is something that helps all of us feel secure.

It’s a necessary part of human development, knowing that we will be loved no matter what and valued for who we are. Treatment is about healing, including healing the family. To achieve healing, we help families define the difference between unconditional love and an unconditional relationship.Unconditional relationships are inherently unhealthy.

The only time unconditional relationships are appropriate is between parent and infant, because parents are 100 percent responsible for every aspect of an infant’s needs. Once we leave infancy, there are always conditions in our relationships. We have conditions in our marriages for how we expect our spouses to act.

We have conditions with our children when we tell them there’s no TV tonight if they don’t clean their rooms. Values and boundaries are a healthy part of all relationships.

During active addiction, things have often broken down for families because of a key factor: Fear.

If a family is sending a loved one to treatment with us, it’s ly because they’ve watched them engage in life-threatening behaviors. Drugs (illegal or over-the-counter drugs), alcohol, eating disorders, sexually acting out, relationship challenges, criminal behavior – these can all be life-or-death propositions. Families know the stakes, but they don’t know what to do.

For many families, the level of fear is so bad that all they want is for their loved one to come home alive. That fear, and lowering of expectations as a result, is understandable. Ultimately, it is not a healthy relationship, and the goal in treatment is to help everyone in the family move beyond that.

Achieving a healthy relationship

To help families understand what behaviors need to change to achieve healthy relationships, we start by asking them to give us an understanding of the lens they view the world through. This involves some background on their own families of origin and the strategies and behaviors they learned.

We then ask them to evaluate their own behavior patterns.

For example, how did they respond each time their son took the car and had a car accident, how did they respond when he returned home? What was the follow-up to that? How did he behave as a result? And how did it feel for the family as those things happened? We’re asking families to look not only at what the patient did, but also at the pattern of response from others in the family, always from the point of view of, is it working? If not, then we start anew in searching for something more effective.As part of treatment, families also need to give up the belief that they can control the patient’s behavior. It’s an illusion to think we can ever control another human being. Once families understand that they can’t control their loved one, it becomes a question of engaging in this relationship in a way where they are comfortable and know they’ve done the best that they can for their loved one and for themselves.

This means expressing love differently at a particular time. We talk a lot with families about how boundaries fit into the healing process. Saying no, or I won’t help you with that, or you’re going to need to figure that out on your own – sounds tough love, but, in reality, these statements are simply indicative of a family creating an opportunity for their loved one to grow and get better.

Tough love doesn’t exist; there’s simply love, conveyed in different ways. The key question is: Is the way you’re conveying your love working? And, the follow-up question to that is, what type of relationship do you want?

We work to help families find a new set of actions to take, ones that often feel counter-intuitive. There must be space we can allow our loved one to grow. We have the data to prove that if you step back in an intentional and healthy way with the guidance of an expert, you allow your loved one to grow and move forward. And that has to be done with love.


Does Tough Love Work for Treating Addiction?

Is Tough Love Effective in Treating Addiction?

Tough love is a common expression used to describe firm or cold behavior approaches to managing someone’s actions.

When treating addiction or helping someone in recovery stay sober, our Massachusetts drug treatment center knows that the tough love approach doesn’t always work. Or does it? Does tough love work for treating addiction? Keep reading to learn what we think.

What Is Tough Love in A Relationship?

“Tough love” is an expression first introduced in a book published in 1968 called Tough Love by author Bill Miln. While the term has been used in various situations ranging from parenting to relationships, it’s not always effective, especially when applied to addiction.

Tough love often describes a parenting style in which the child experiences negative emotions as part of a learning process. Parenting styles can range from the healthy boundaries of authoritative parenting to abusive parenting that relies on humiliation or even physical violence.

The use of humiliation, physical violence, belittling, or any other abusive or harmful form of punishment exemplifies why tough love can be bad. For example, a parent may use tough love with their adult child who hasn’t gotten a job yet.

The parent may allow their child to experience consequences late payments or bill collections instead of helping them.

On the other hand, a more harmful example of tough love is a parent belittling or physically injuring their child for failing to get good grades or to take out the trash or wash dishes.

While discipline and consequences can change behavior, this is an extreme example of tough love that can have a negative, long-lasting effect on the child. However, when used correctly, tough love can help the situation and allow the child to learn a valuable lesson in a supportive way that protects their dignity.

Here at Banyan Treatment Centers Massachusetts, we understand how difficult it can be to help someone with an addiction. On the one hand, you may be afraid of enabling or spoiling them to the point where you indirectly encourage their drug use. But on the other hand, you may be worried about pushing them to the point where they don’t want your help at all.

The truth is, addiction affects both the individual and their loved ones. Addicts in recovery have the highest chance of long-term sobriety when everyone is on board. Being the spouse, parent, or family member of an addict is difficult. We offer a family program that provides loved ones with therapy and counseling that promotes healing.

Only when you make amends with your loved ones can you truly be there for them.

Preventing Enabling with Tough Love

Parents of addicted loved ones are sometimes encouraged to use tough love to prevent enabling their children. There’s a big difference between enabling and supportive behavior. Enabling is when you do something for someone that they can or should do on their own.

For instance, when it comes to enabling an addict, loved ones may make the individual the focal point of their attention and sympathy. An addict’s parents may put their own needs aside to constantly take care of them. However, there’s a fine line between helping and enabling.

Many enablers often behave this way with the right intentions. They may believe that covering up for the person’s behavior or lying for them to avoid getting into trouble is helpful. Enablers often act this way genuine love, but their intentions, unfortunately, are misplaced.

Tough love is the opposite of enabling and is, therefore, thought of as an effective preventative measure. However, this approach can do more damage than good when unregulated.

Does Tough Love Really Work for Helping Addicts?

The tough-love approach can backfire if misused and can be dangerous in handling teens or adults who engage in substance abuse.

Some treatment centers encourage using tough love to break down the individual’s will and get them to comply with treatment, but this does more harm than good. You can’t force a person to go to rehab.

Even if they complete treatment, those who do so without the genuine desire to stay sober will relapse.

So, does tough love work for treating addiction? It can if it’s done with the input or guidance of a physician or therapist. Parents of addicts should seek advice from these trained addiction treatment professionals to learn the healthiest ways to utilize the tough love approach without breaking down their loved one’s dignity or discouraging them from seeking support.

If your loved one is battling addiction and you don’t know what to do, we can help. Call Banyan Massachusetts now at 888-280-4763 for more information about our outpatient drug treatment programs in Boston.

Related Reading:

  • Can I Smoke Weed in Recovery?


Tough Love Approach to Addiction: Does It Work or Doesn’t It?

Is Tough Love Effective in Treating Addiction?

Getting help for a loved one or family member who’s struggling with addiction can seem overwhelming, confusing and difficult.

Not only are there myriad treatment options in terms of treatment plan and facility, there’s also the all-important consideration that the loved one or family member will reject treatment completely.

The more self-destructive his or her addiction has become, the more he or she is ly to deny a need for help or willingly submit to treatment. Is tough love the answer? Maybe, and maybe not.


The tough love approach to addiction treatment gained popularity several years ago, and does still have its adherents today. The essence of tough love with respect to addiction is a no-holds-barred and forceful approach that may seem harsh, unloving and uncompromising.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines tough love as: “love or affectionate concern expressed in a stern or unsentimental manner (as through discipline) especially to promote responsible behavior.” Collins English dictionary says tough love is “the practice of being very strict with a relative or friend who has an addiction or other problem in order to help them overcome the problem.

popular advice in the late 1960s, some parents believed the tough love approach was the only way to deal with recalcitrant children, kids who always got into trouble, didn’t listen, acted in rebellious and disrespectful ways.

The kids who stole, told lies, caused deliberate harm to their peers, failed in school, participated in gangs and other illegal activity, often engaged in drug and alcohol abuse as part of their childhood existence. This created unending strife in the household, contributing to a downward spiral in the overall quality of family life.

The parents believed that maintaining a united, determined and forceful approach to raising their child was the best way to turn things around.

The tough love approach to addiction was an outgrowth of this concept.

The thought was, if the individual who’s addicted to alcohol or drugs, and/or a co-occurring disorder cannot and will not admit they have a problem and refuses treatment, physically forcing them into a rehab facility provided the only viable solution.

Many times, addiction traced back to early experimentation in adolescence with alcohol or marijuana, stealing prescription drugs from parents or others, progressing to harder, illicit substances such as heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and hallucinogens.

Tough love may, however, be the only way for some addicts to get into treatment. Having rejected all previous overtures and offers of help, falling deeper and deeper into despair, suffering tremendous negative consequences and nearly giving up on life, the lifeline of tough love might just work.

Some states are considering mandatory treatment by means of involuntary commitment statutes for those who abuse opioids.

New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and the state of Washington have current bills proposed that would amend their current involuntary commitment laws for mental illness to include “ingestion of opioid substances.”.

While not tough love, per se, mandatory treatment is another way to force treatment. With opioid addiction and abuse at epidemic levels in the U.S., this approach is one way to combat it.

Then, again, it might not. The person who feels forced into treatment may harbor a great deal of resentment toward loved ones and family members he or she holds responsible for sending them away.

The progress that could be made in treatment may become stalled or worse, not happen at all.

Rather than remain in treatment, the addict may choose to leave, thus, jettisoning his or her chances at an effective recovery.


The inevitability of an addicted loved one’s continued self-destruction is a powerful motivation for the tough love approach.

  • There’s no guesswork involved. Getting the loved one into treatment is not a matter of acceptance, it’s mandatory, as far as the responsible parties (spouse, other loved ones and family members) are concerned.
  • Once the loved one is off in treatment, the rest of the family can breathe a sigh of relief. They have no further responsibility in the matter.
  • When the loved one is off in the treatment center, the family and loved ones can begin to pick up the pieces at home. There’s a sense of peace and tranquility, although nothing in the home may have changed.
  • Only professionals can effectively deal with the outbursts, physical and mental damage brought on by addiction. It’s better he or she is where they can get the help they need. Loved ones and family members can’t provide this.
  • All of life has consequences. Every person, no matter their age, must be held accountable for their actions. There are no acceptable excuses and delays to going in for treatment are not tolerated.


If tough love really worked well as an effective approach to addiction, it would be surely widely popular, touted in research and acclaimed by respected organizations such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and others.

On the contrary, studies show that nurturing, supportive and loving treatment and care is a much more effective approach to healing from addiction.

  • Connection is a critically important part of the healing process in recovery. When an individual feels alienated, isolated and abandoned by loved ones and family members, he or she desperately needs connection – with others in recovery, with treatment staff, and participants in self-help and support groups.
  • Some addicts will absolutely reject tough love. This is especially true if loved ones and family members become disrespectful, talk in a rude and loud manner, stop showing love and compassion – all to act tough and insist on the addict abiding by strict rules and suffering the consequences for infractions.
  • A gentler approach, showing empathy and compassion, being inclusive and welcoming, generally produces more positive recovery outcomes.
  • Family members and loved ones who participate in family programs at the same time as their loved one receives treatment can learn much-needed skills in interpersonal communications, how to assist and support the loved one on his or her return home, how to be firm and loving and encourage positive goals.
  • Being firm and loving while still providing support and encouragement for the addict in recovery combines the best of tough love and a more loving, supporting approach to addiction. Here again, adequate training in how to deal with the recovering addict is essential, not only in the language used, but also how to help the recovering individual manage everyday situations ly to trigger a relapse.

Bottom line: When addiction causes increasingly negative consequences, not only to the addict but also his or her family, it’s clear that professional help is needed. Navigating the fine line between being overly tough and sufficiently caring and supportive is a delicate, emotional experience, yet it’s one that offers the most promise for a hopeful outcome for the addict in recovery.


Medscape, “States Consider Mandatory Treatment for Opioid Abusers.” Retrieved March 29, 2017

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved March 29, 2017 from

Psychology Today, “Stop Enabling Your Addicted Adult Child.” Retrieved March 29, 2017

The Fix, “Tough Love Doesn’t Work: A New Approach to Helping Addicts.” Retrieved March 29, 2017


Is “Tough Love” an Effective Treatment Method?

Is Tough Love Effective in Treating Addiction?

When it comes to treatment for mental health and substance abuse disorders, some methods are more effective than others. Every therapist has their preferred ways to treat clients, and every client responds differently to certain therapies. But some therapy tactics, using tough love, are seen as controversial in the mental health community.

Why Therapists Use Tough Love

Addiction is a serious disease that affects nearly 21 million Americans. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of those people seek professional help. When someone does get treatment for addiction, the main goal is to stop them from using drugs or alcohol. One of the ways that therapists approach addiction treatment is to use tough love.

Some therapists use tough love to hold their clients accountable for their negative actions and behaviors.

That might mean telling a client that they’ll never have successful relationships because of their addiction, or suggesting that they’ll never reach their goals unless they get sober.

Addictions can be deadly, so a therapist might even tell a client that their life is on the line unless they make a change.

When it comes to addiction treatment, everyone responds differently to various methods. For some people, tough love is effective. There are always going to be people who need a healthy dose of reality to recognize the situation in front of them. There are also people who need to hear the truth about how their addiction is potentially destroying their lives. 

As a mental health professional, it’s not wrong to give your clients tough love if that’s what they need and respond to. Before taking that approach, make sure you get to know them and understand what strategies resonate with them. Don’t jump into tough love right away and assume that it will encourage them to make an immediate change.

The Drawbacks of Using Tough Love

It’s important to remember that while tough love works for some, it can actually be harmful to other people’s recovery. Using tough love with clients who are more sensitive can make them less ly to open up and talk about their feelings. Harsh words can make some people feel guilty, angry or sad when they’re already incredibly vulnerable.

Erin Khar says it best in this article about why mental health professionals should rethink using tough love as a response to addiction.

Erin, who was a drug addict for 15 years, explains that she endured tough love from therapists every time she entered rehab.

She also says that receiving tough love in treatment was partially responsible for several relapses she had before finally getting sober.

Mental health professionals need to remember that people suffering from addictions are already struggling and some have hit their rock bottom.

Most people realize how they are hurting themselves and the people around them, but their addiction is holding them hostage. If an addict could simply rid themselves of the disease, they would do it.

They don’t need someone to remind them of the consequences of their actions.

Erin explains that using tough love with people who are already feeling damaged, unlovable and stigmatized doesn’t help them solve their trauma and emotional pain.

Using tough love with people in treatment can actually prevent others from reaching out for help.

At the end of the day, the only way to beat the addiction epidemic is to encourage more recovering addicts to get professional treatment. 

Finding the Right Balance in Treatment

As a mental health professional, you understand the importance of creating a personalized treatment program for all of your clients—especially those recovering from addiction. Accountability is a critical component in recovery. After all, treatment won’t be effective if you enable your clients to continue using drugs or alcohol. 

In your treatment protocol, finding the right balance between support, compassion and accountability can be difficult. But finding that balance is what will ultimately help your clients recover successfully, and most importantly, help them stay sober. Here are some ways you can encourage your clients to stay accountable for their actions.

1. Help them find an accountability partner

Your client might feel motivated to work on their sobriety after a therapy session, but what happens after that is your control.

To help your client stay accountable when you’re not around, help them find a partner who can keep them on track on a daily basis.

Maybe that’s a trusted friend or family member who can check in on them, see how they’re feeling and spend time within a safe environment.

2. Work together to identify their triggers

Most recovering addicts have triggers that cause cravings or compel them to use drugs or alcohol.

By working with your clients to identify their triggers, you can help them avoid certain people or places that are harmful and could compromise their sobriety.

Their accountability partner can help ensure that they don’t cross certain boundaries that could cause them to relapse. As their therapist, you can help them find healthier ways to deal with triggers if they do arise.

3. Celebrate their successes

One of the best ways to hold your clients accountable is to celebrate their victories, no matter how small. That will encourage and incentivize them to stay sober and work hard to maintain their sobriety.

Knowing that you see them and support them will give them a reason to keep moving forward, even on hard days.

Remember that you might be their only support system, so find ways to be their cheerleader throughout recovery.

Addiction Treatment in Santa Barbara

At Mission Harbor, we specialize in treating teens and young adults with addiction and substance abuse disorders.

Our 30-, 60- and 90-day tracks are personalized for the needs of every client to help them recover effectively and avoid the risk of relapse.

Depending on client needs, we offer partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient program that is run by our clinicians and mental health counselors.

To learn more about Mission Harbor in Santa Barbara, including our telehealth services and increased sanitation and safety procedures, contact us at (805) 209-4433 or get in touch with a member of our admissions team. 

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