By Benzion Twerski, Ph.D.
The parents of a troubled teenager have all heard this expression many times. After all has been said, doing this is much more difficult. This concept needs some exploration so that the words “tough love” do not become a meaningless slogan to join the ranks of other expressions that only purport to have significance.
Donning my controversial hat, I propose to arrive at a new meaning from a new angle. I believe any parent of adolescents could relate to this.
By way of introducing this proposal, I wish to describe the dilemma of the parents. Raising children, with all its inherent blessings and burdens, can be confusing and perplexing. At what age can we demand certain responsibilities of the children? We are all familiar with the famous book by Dr. Spock whose liberal and permissive directions are often implicated in discussion about the drug epidemic. Haim Ginnott wrote similarly for various age groups more conservatively.
An observer of animal behavior can readily identify maternal behavior, the bilk of which is instinctual and biologically pre-programmed. The motivation of the parent to feed, groom, and protect its young is not rooted in some intellectual understanding of responsibility, nor is it founded on emotional attachment.
Returning to the human race, the above principles are true, but the intellect and emotional factors rapidly enter the picture. In most cases, the parent recognizes the role to which he or she has been assigned, and this responsibility is readily accepted. In parallel, parental love (very different from romantic or friendship love) begins to develop.
In the typical family, this process occurs unimpeded. Yes, there can be parents who do not love their children. However, this is a rare exception. Even in the most dysfunctional families, parental love is alive and strong, with other factors inhibiting the capacity to find effective communication of this to the child.
The rebellious, troubled adolescent exacts a heavy price for this love. How easy is it to tell your teenager who keeps you up nights searching for him/her, steals from you, gets expelled or suspended from school multiple times, participates in illegal activities, experiments or uses drugs, and tells you that he/she hates you, “I love you?” Quite similar to your inability to trust this youngster, your words of love are not likely to believed either.
In this state of affairs, the parent can resort to only one way to still show love. Taking any action that is ultimately helpful is the only choice left. This action is not any different from the young mother taking the infant to the pediatrician for immunization shots. We all comprehend the pain of injection as a small price to pay for lifetime protection from fatal diseases.
There are times when withholding allowances, privileges, and social activities is the epitome of generosity.There are times when the kindest, most loving act, is to report a child’s criminal activity to the authorities. There are times when bailing a teenager out of jail is destructive. There are times when forcing an adolescent into treatment is noble and laudable. Deciding to take such actions is about the most painful decision a parent can make. The “tough” in “tough love” is not the strictness and toughness imposed on the child. It refers to the courage demanded of the parent who needs to suppress the intense love that is instinctual, emotional, and a recognized responsibility, to take actions that are ultimately of benefit to the child.
All parents should be blessed by Hashem with children who are capable of receiving their messages of love through all other forms of behavior. If we are given a different lot in life, we should be blessed by Hashem with the fortitude and koach to go against our grain and be tough on ourselves.