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There’s no doubt about it –  as your children and teenagers grow up, there are often times when you need to apply a bit of the old tough love. And it can hurt.  It can upset them and it can hurt to you to have to say it and then cope with the backlash. Here are a few tips to explain what tough love is – and why it is important.


Poor Spookje! An operation to remove a cyst on his tail was bad enough, and I was already a traitor for taking him to have the operation. But THEN I had to put a cone on him to stop him worrying at his tail, and pulling out the internal stitch. This was the last straw – he was utterly miserable, banging into things and was completely distraught. Yet it had to be done to protect his tail while it healed. This is how I explain tough love in my Spookje story video.


What is tough love?

Tough love, or being cruel to be kind, is when , sometimes with both children and teens, there is a need to say something or act in a way that they don’t like or appreciate. This is tough love. For instance, there comes a time in every young adult’s life that it’s time to wear deodorant. After all, no one wants to sit next to, or be associated with, someone who is sweaty and stinks. As a parent or teacher, this is a mist have conversation, and it can be embarrassing for both parties. No one wants to have to say, “Darling, I love you but you smell.” And no one wants to hear it either.  It can be those important yet unpleasant things like getting vaccinations, or going to the doctor or dentist – even the hairdresser for some younger children. Yet it needs to be done and it needs to be said.

Why is it important?

Tough love is important because children and teens need to hear these messages and be kept safe and healthy. In the long run, you do these things for their own good and their future health, self-esteem or happiness. No, going to the doctor isn’t always pleasant, but it means that if there is a problem, it can be identified and steps taken to remedy it, where possible. The dentist -again – rarely a joyful experience but no one wants crooked, painful or dis-coloured teeth – and you don’t want that for your child or teen. Yes, they are most likely going to resent having to go through or hear something unpleasant. They are going to cry, and sulk and have temper tantrums (even teenagers!) yet that is, unfortunately, part and parcel of parenting.

 Why it´s hard to use tough love

There are several reasons why saying things or doing things that need to be said or done is tough:

  • Your own embarrassment or awkwardness around what needs to be said.
  • Lack of awareness of how to go about saying it.
  • Knowing that you will sadden, upset or disappoint your child or teen, which will make them angry at you.
  • You will cause them hurt, embarrassment or upset.
  • They will take it out on you.
  • You worry it will damage your relationship.

How to say it

The fact is NOT saying or doing anything is what will damage your relationship and cause even more hurt, upset and embarrassment on both sides. Like pulling off a plaster – make it quick, clean, make sure they know it´s coming, and be nice afterwards.

1. Stick to the facts.

“Sweetie, you know how as we get older, our bodies change and as we exercise and move around, we start to sweat. At that point, we all need to wear deodorant and a body spray if you want to. You’re at that age, so let’s go shopping and look at what kinds of deodorant you’d like to use.” This is non negotiable. It’s set in fact, it’s been said in a direct and sensitive way – and there’s an opportunity to fix it immediately in a safe way.

2. Be sensitive.

No one likes to be told something negative about the way we look, smell or come across. Children and teenagers are especially sensitive to change – it is something they have no control over and it is very new to them. So, remember how you feel when you’ve been on the receiving end of tough love, and make sure you are saying what needs to be said in a way you know they are better able to receive the message and not feel ashamed. ,”Oh my you really smell and sweat these days  – you need deodorant!” This is shaming, it’s not safe and there’s no option to do something positive to change it.

3. Take action.

Once it’s been said, allow there to be an action to solve the problem. This should be going shopping to buy the bra, or the deodorant – or whatever. Make it a shared, open and direct action that is free from embarrassment. If they are embarrassed, respect their boundaries and ask how they want to solve it. Maybe say you will buy something and then another time you can go together? Always give children and teens an opt out and respect the boundaries they are setting. But take the action one way or another and always keep option open for them to come and talk to you any time. It is important they get to share their side too.

4. Acknowledge their feelings – yet keep the boundaries in place

Give them space and tell them you know and respect it isn´t easy t hear these things. Explain your intention is always to keep them safe, healthy and make sure they are looking and feeling good about themselves. Reiterate it is not about shaming – say you are sorry if they are upset, but as a e this is part of making sure they are well and safe. They might get upset – that´s one thing – but they are still not allowed to go over the family boundaries that are in place. That´s not on. It´s OK to respect their space and feelings – but it is still their job as a member of the family to treat others with the same respect.

5. Move on – keep the lines of communication open.

Like the plaster, once it’s sad, it´s said and done and it is time to get back to normal. Keep chatting, keep the lines of communication open and create a normal environment so they can “come down” and join in as normal once again if they have been upset.

When to stop

As with all things, there is also a fine line of when it’s helping them – and when it is actually enough and it is time to stop. Your children will tell you – not just with words, but by their actions and changes in behaviours, mood and eating. In this case, it’s really very important that you sit and listen to their side and their feelings. There may well be a better way – a way that you create together. In the case of the cat, his misery from wearing the cone after only 24 hours was almost more than I could bear.  He had isolated himself, was deliberately bumping into things, dragging it along the floor, and eating a lot less. So, I checked in with the vet, and I’m glad I did. While it had been very important for that 24 hours, the misery it was causing Spookje was outweighing it’s benefits, so it came off and I closely monitored him for the next day – and all was well.  It’s about balance and keeping an eye on their responses.

If you’re worried about how to approach these types of conversations, don’t hesitate – please get in touch.