Does Tough Love Work For Addicts

Does Tough Love Work for Addicts?

Tough love is a term used to describe the stern treatment of another individual. This includes placing some constraints or forcing the person to take responsibility for his actions. Done to promote the welfare of any individual, this activity is often carried out with addicts. As to if it works, make sure to read below to find out.

Tough Love Work
Image Credits: Google

The Popularity Of Tough Love

Tough love came into the collective consciousness of people in the year 1968, many thanks to the similarly-titled book by Bill Milliken.

Used in contexts such as parenting and relationships, it’s all about setting boundaries. It should preserve the person’s dignity, without outright abusing the person. For example, a parent with a jobless soon may refuse him shelter unless he promises to seek work.

While tough love aims to make the person responsible, it can have dire effects when done wrong. For example, a child who is often belittled by his parent may end up with emotional or trust issues.

Tough Love And Addiction

The use of tough love for addiction was popularized in the year 1981. This was borne out of the experience that David and Phyllis York had with their 3 addicted daughters.

Tough Love And Addiction

In their story in People Magazine, the couple explained what happened when one child was caught robbing a cocaine dealer. Instead of bailing her out like most parents, the coupled refused to come to her aid. Even though she was cleared of the charges, the Yorks refused to take the daughter back unless she underwent addiction treatment.

This tough love proved to be effective for their daughter. After spending some time in a halfway house, she was on her way to complete sobriety. To honor this monumental event, the parents founded the organization Tough Love.

Does Tough Love Work For Addicts?

It does, when used in the right context. For one, the approach should be balanced. While you should be firm in insisting that the addict change his ways, you should still be able to offer some support. More importantly, this should be done in consultation with a substance/healthcare professional.

Does Tough Love Work For Addicts?

Tough love alone can be dangerous, as detailed in an article by Dr. David Kolker in PsychCentral. He cited a father who was advised by his addicted son’s therapist to do some tough love. As such, the dad opted not to receive his son’s calls. He also cut him off financially, which led to the son hitting rock bottom. Unfortunately, this led to more harm than help as the addict ended up succumbing to overdose.

This concern was echoed by Richard Rawson of the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Program. In his interview with ABC News, he explained that treatments that involve tough love and confrontation tend to drive addicts away from sobriety. This is the worst thing that could happen after all, as the key to recovery is convincing the person to undergo treatment.  

Although tough love is deemed to be a clinically-appropriate response, Dr. Kolker emphasizes balance – meaning you should not cut off the addict completely. He says that experts, even the addict’s family and friends have a responsibility to meet the addict where he/she is and provide help if he/she asks.

Professionals, as with the addict’s family members, should remember to show love and compassion too. For the most part, addicts have been disregarded for a good part of their lives. As with every other person – substance users also just want to be loved.

When To Do Tough Love

In his interview with ABC News, Psychiatrist Dr. David Sack explained that the best time to observe tough love is when the addict is ignoring you.

Image Credits: Google

For parents, the best path to pursue is financial tough love. That means cutting any support that may fuel the child’s habit. This may include removing his/her allowance, food source, shelter, and vehicle. However, doing just this can have negative consequences, as mentioned in the dad and son case above.

As such, experts are telling parents to follow certain guidelines whenever they enact balanced tough love. That means setting rules and being clear with what’s acceptable and not. It’s important to show that you’re serious and that you’ll follow up with the consequences, i.e. kicking out your child for good.

Tough Love From The Addict’s Point Of View

‘Balancing’ tough love may hold the key to success, at least in the case of Lauren King. In her teenage years, she suffered from a bad case of methamphetamine addiction. As a last resort, her mom Karen Franklin kicked her out of the house.

Although Karen showed tough love, she offered a solution, unlike other parents. She made it clear to Lauren that something was waiting for her should she decide to get clean. Now, Lauren remains to be meth-free.

While some addicts have managed to remain sober with the help of balanced tough love, some users believe that it should be the last resort. According to recovering addict Maia Szalavitz, cutting people like her off is good for the other party. However, she adds, it would need more than that to treat them.

Further Treatment

Tough love, while difficult for many parents, may help convince your child to attend treatment. This was the case with Lauren, whose mother’s balanced tough love made her realize the importance of seeking treatment.

That being said, this may be the nudge that your child needs to receive addiction treatments such as:

Medication For Addict
  • Behavioral counseling. This can help change the person’s attitudes and behaviors toward drug use.
  • Evaluation for co-existing conditions. As per NIDA, about half of people with mental illnesses can develop substance abuse and vice versa. Having a dual diagnosis can end up amplifying the symptoms of each problem.
  • Medication. The detox process may involve the use of the NSS-2 Bridge. For relapse prevention, treatments such as Naltrexone (for Opioid addiction), Patches (for Nicotine addiction), Acamprosate & Disulfiram (for alcohol abuse) may be prescribed.
  • Long-term follow-up


Tough love may work for addicts, but an element of balance is needed. Apart from cutting off the person financially, the concerned party should extend support whenever he/she can. After all, addicts are more likely to undergo treatment when they receive help from their loved ones.

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