Tough Love Doesn’t Work: New Approaches to Helping Addicts

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Most people have heard of tough love. While it originated in the medical and addiction treatment communities, tough love has become synonymous for any instance where persons with authority are strict and use either punishment or ostracization to enforce something. In the addiction and rehabilitation community, tough love has become the standard for families to treat their children – by shutting them out, imposing harsh restrictions, and even disowning them when they fail to quit or follow through on rehab.

But, increasing evidence shows that tough love doesn’t work. In fact, it may even do more harm than good.

Where Does Tough Love Come From?

Most practiced instances of tough love in the United States date back to the 1950s, and a single rehabilitation program, Synanon. This program focused on using a tough approach, punishing ‘bad’ behavior severely, eventually resulting in the death of several people. The program was closed in 1959, but was quickly adopted by multiple other organizations – with an incarnation eventually becoming part of an international program pushed by Nancy Reagan.

As a result, a single program advocating punishing mistakes and slipups in recovery became a standard in national recovery methods, and therefore a standard in home care. Today’s professional treatment facilities often don’t use tough love standards, but it’s still used at home.

Why Doesn’t Tough Love Work?

We, as people crave affection, belonging, and support. More importantly, we crave those things from the people who mean the most to us, our friends and family. That support and the motivation of family is often the largest driving reason behind a successful recovery. But tough love approaches cut addicts off from their biggest supporters, giving them reasons to be angry, alone, and afraid – and therefore more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.

  • Tough Love is Authoritarian – People often recover from a place of love. Even in modern treatment, results are achieved by showing addicts that they are loved, that they are valued as human beings, and that they are capable and able of being better. For example, Ellen Sousares shared the story of how abandoning tough love in favor of sharing education and caring eventually did what 6 years of tough love could not, and helped her son into recovery. Tough love is about knowing what’s best and acting accordingly, rather than trying to understand and trying to protect a child when they make mistakes.
  • Tough Love Encourages Addiction – Most people wouldn’t think that shutting someone out until they go to rehab would encourage more substance use, but it does. Many addicts use substances as a coping mechanism, and negative emotions like anger, grief, sadness, and loneliness make them more susceptible to using. So, while tough love may push addicts to hit rock bottom faster, neither tough love nor hitting rock bottom is likely to make users quit. Instead, people perform best when given positive, nonjudgmental advice aimed at their true well-being. This doesn’t mean enabling them, but it does mean being there, listening, and taking steps to show that person you love them, even when it’s hard. For example, ensuring that a drug user has access to Naloxone to prevent an overdose.
  • Tough Love is Easy – Locking someone out and refusing to deal with them anymore is the easy way to approach someone with an addiction. It says it’s not your problem, and if they aren’t going to try, you aren’t either. While that’s a fair approach, because you are by no means obligated to do anything for anyone, it is the easy way out and it does hurt addicts. People turn to drugs and alcohol for a variety of complex reasons and abandoning them will often not solve their problems. Taking time to learn about addiction, how to prevent overdose, and how to be there for that person takes effort, patience, kindness, and real love.

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What to Do Instead?

Many people choose tough love not because it’s easy, but because they are afraid that offering support and education will result in enabling drug and alcohol use. While the risk is a real one, there are many alternatives to tough love that support you and your loved one without enabling them.

Educate Yourself – The more you know about your loved one’s addiction, the more rationally and logically you can approach it. Take the time to read about addiction, to visit needle dispensaries in areas where they are available, to read books, and to talk to your loved one about it. Addiction is often complex, driven by many different things, which eventually become a habit. There’s no simple or easy way to approach it. By learning how to prevent overdose, how to administer drugs safely, and how or what to do in case of an overdose, you can ensure that you are ready in case the worst happens – while also showing your loved one that you care enough about them to understand that even though they are still using, they’re still a person, valued, and deserving of love.

Talk – Talking to someone about addiction is not easy, especially when they are a close family member, a child, a parent, or a sibling. However, if you can talk in a nonjudgmental way, if you can be there and listen when they need it, and if you can offer advice without preaching, you can establish the trust and respect that will facilitate recovery. An addict’s problems are not yours, nor are they something that you have to accept, but if you can respect that they are problems and that the person who has them cannot change without that acceptance, you can establish a better relationship built on emotional support and trust. For example, by supporting them, you may find that they are using because they face other problems which you can then work to get treatment for.

Set Limits – While detaching with love has often been interpreted as stepping completely away from an addict while still loving them, there is another way. By stepping back, setting boundaries, and following them – you can protect yourself while still being there and supporting them. In this sense, you set limits for yourself, what you are and are not willing to do, what you are and are not willing to accept, and what you can talk about. By creating limits, and refusing to pass them, you ensure that you can protect your mental health. You also make it possible for you to be there without enabling. For example, you can set limits that you are willing to help but that you will not give them money. That you are willing to talk and willing to purchase Naloxone or a similar overdose prevention drug, but that you do not want that person using in your home.

Tough love is the most accepted way to ‘deal’ with an addicted person in the family. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. We understand that mental disorders like bipolar disorder and anxiety need treatment, acceptance, and long-term care, and as a disorder, addiction is often the same way. The addict needs understanding and caring, alongside boundaries, to develop the motivation to get treatment and to stay clean or sober.

If you or your loved one is struggling with addiction, you can talk to us about addiction treatment programs  at our affordable drug and alcohol rehab that fit your needs, call us today at (844) 494-4939.  The Anaheim Lighthouse is a modern and effective addiction treatment center in Southern California.

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