Tough Love: the Learning Theory

Carmel Valley San Diego Community | Dr. Kanner | Child Not Listening“OUCH”.  The connotations associated with Tough Love are commonly negative.  It feels as though the approach is “mean” and “harsh”, rather than a “wake up” call that behavior needs to change.  The approach does entail “love”, but the delivery is not done in a teddy bear fashion.  It is direct and to the point.  The behavior must change or there will be a consequence.

This approach is based on Learning Theory.  That negatively reinforcing a behavior reduces the repetition of the behavior in question.  A child hits their sibling and then gets a time out because a parent will not allow their child to do something “wrong”.  Tough love.  What is the alternative?  Reinforcing “positive” behavior?  Positive Parenting?  Nope, the research does not support this approach.  This is why.

Kids are not that simple.  They are not dogs.  If a kid thinks they can get away with something, they will.  This is reality.  When a child has a limit, they are forced to change.  If they get a reward for being “good”, this has nothing to do with the “bad” behavior. Rewarding successful behavior is also essential, but, it’s not enough.  Parents need to be the “bad” guy sometimes and it’s a tough position to take for most parents.  Why?  It is much easier to gratify a child than punish them.  Most parents cringe when they feel as though they have made their own child cry.  “Ouch”.  Guilt is one of the most common pitfalls of good parenting.  But remember, no pain, no gain.  Limits promote growth and inhibit regression.  Most successful schools in fact utilize a Tough Love approach and are the most effective in promoting appropriate behavior and have the fewest problems with both Bullies & Mean Girls.  These school also produce the most students who go to College.  Why?  The students know that there are Standards that must be followed or there will be a price to pay.  Kids can understand this and it is helpful, not harmful.

The difference between technology and human behavior are quite different.  Technology does change , but human behavior does not.  People behave consistently despite the changing world around them.  For example, violent television and video games are proved to cause overstimulation in most kids if they are overexposed.  Overstimulation is a human condition.  However, the ways that we effectively deal with it is the same now as it was 100 years ago.  Limits.  Tough love. Dealing with behavior is well defined with research and clinical data.  Kids need limits when they break the rules.  Otherwise, they become entitled and self-centered. Parents have to sometimes be the “bad guys” because they love their children.  In fact, the optimal role of a parent is to help their child to function in society, and not live in some sort of “special” bubble.

Kids who act out have problems.  They have not internalized rules and the essence of right versus wrong.  Limits, rules, laws, and adult intervention are necessary to keep kids on track but this does not happen a lot of the time.  Why ?  Parents fear setting limits.  They fear their kids not liking them and fear they are hurting them.  No. Limits are love.  Kids need parents to draw the line.  They are not yet capable of self-responsibility until they reach at least late adolescence ( 17 years + ).

Even Sigmund Freud in his landmark essay Civilization and its Discontents spelled out how without rules, laws, and holding people accountable, society would not exist, and he was right on this one.  Parents need to set limits.  They need to be tough when their kids are not towing their own ability to self-regulate according to their age.  Infantilization is treating a kid as though they cannot follow a rule.  This communicates to the child that they don’t have to.  When they reach Adulthood,  they become selfish, non-empathic, and pathetic. “YUCK”.

So parents, don’t be afraid to be “tough” in the love department when your kid acts  entitled or don’t tow the line of what they are able to accomplish.  It’s okay to reinforce when they do something well but it is equally or more important to stop them from doing something wrong or stupid.  That is love.  Looking out for the best interests of a child’s complete development is the optimal role of good parenting.  But, you have to be tough sometimes to show your kids that you really do love them.
______________________________________________________________Carmel Valley San Diego Community | Keith Kanner

Dr. Keith Kanner is a Licensed and Board Certified Clinical Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychologist and Psychoanalyst. In addition to a full-time private practice in Rancho Santa Fe, California, he is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of California San Diego where he teaches both human development and also trains medical students how to better understand and relate to their patients. He also serves as the Director of Clinical Counseling for La Jolla Country Day School in La Jolla, California, and is a Clinical Professor at The San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.  Dr. Kanner also sits on the National Board of Directors for Kids Korps USA, which is the largest organization in the country that teaches children and adolescents the importance of volunteering to help the community at large. As a father of three children, he is also a dedicated baseball, football, and soccer coach.


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