How Tough Should “Tough Love” Be?

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As noted last week, I have mild autism (Asperger’s syndrome)–and it’s caused more than a few financial and vocational problems. Not to dwell on the past or blame anyone for anything, but sometimes I wish my family and friends had been less generous in automatically saying “Yes” to requests for financial help. We “Aspies” aren’t lazy, but we’re particularly averse to stepping outside familiar comfort zones–including current living situations, leisure hours, spending habits, and work/work-seeking habits (or lack thereof). A few “earn your own money” kicks in the pants might have done me some good.

Special needs aside, many parents fret over the question, “What can I do about my adult child who’s still living under my roof letting me do his cleaning and cooking? What’s the alternative–tossing my kid out on the street to starve?”

The standard answer is, You’ll have to risk the “tough love” approach–withdrawing all support and letting him take the consequences–or be stuck in this situation forever. But the best approach doesn’t necessarily follow a script. Remember the prodigal son? His father let him experience the consequences of irresponsibility–but only after giving him everything he initially demanded. And, when the son came back begging for help meeting his basic needs, the father gave him more than he asked, without a word of “Promise me you’ll never do that again.”

Whether it’s your adult child with one foot still in dependence, your friend who “needs to talk” for hours, or your spouse battling alcoholism–how can you find the line between genuinely helping them and simply enabling them to continue in irresponsibility?

Does This Person Have Legitimate Special Needs?

These include any diagnosable physical or mental disability, including chemical addiction. It’s best if you go to therapy with your loved one: you’ll be too emotionally involved to judge how much responsibility the other party can and should handle. Under a counselor’s guidance, reach a solid agreement on what will be expected on both sides. Then hold firm to your side of the agreement (which may require both saying painful “no’s” and inconveniencing yourself for legitimate needs).

Are They Even Aware of What They’re Doing?

If someone has no special needs confirmed by an objective third party, but is simply in the habit of asking for “help” the moment things get challenging, sometimes all that’s needed is a frank person-to-person discussion. If you genuinely try to understand your loved one’s concerns, and if you encourage them to explore what’s needed to achieve their real dreams, you may be able to reach an effective agreement on new boundaries and mutual accountability. And your relationship will be stronger for it.

Are They Unwilling to Learn Any Way But the Hard Way?

If, after giving your loved one every chance to share their point of view, they refuse to consider any option except “I tell you what I need and you give it to me” (or if they agree to boundaries which they then repeatedly violate), then it’s time to get tough with your love. Tell them clearly what you won’t do anymore: no more cash on demand, no more taking calls between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. Then, hold firm throughout the inevitable period of “just this once” and “I thought you cared” pleading.

You’ll probably need help yourself to ride out this transition, especially if your loved one is heading into serious trouble. Parents, in particular, feel morally bound to save their “baby,” even if “baby” is fifty-five years old and milking them dry to support illegal activities. Enlist support and prayers from trusted friends. Get qualified counseling. Confirm, as often as necessary, that you are doing the right thing.

Above all else (this applies however extreme or manageable your situation), commit your loved one to God and trust Him to work it all out for good. He’s the only One Who can handle any situation and Who loves everyone in perfect wisdom.


After All My Hard Work

“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’” (Luke 15:10, NLT).

Nothing fuels a bad attitude like a disappointed sense of entitlement–and the worst kind of entitlement is the kind you’ve “worked hard” for. Add fatigue and stress to disappointment and resentment, and get a major explosion seeking an excuse to happen. If we can’t find a specific “prodigal” or responsible party to direct our anger at, any person who has the nerve to speak to us will do; and if no human target is available, we can always kick the car, shake a fist at the rain, or even mentally tell God a thing or two or three about how we slaved to get things right and He evidently couldn’t care less.

We’re all born with some sense of entitlement, but it tends to mature with the person. As tiny tots, we perceive that our felt needs are satisfied on command, and we take it as our due–and become hysterical at delays. A bit older, we learn that doing “a good job” brings praise and reward–and break into storms of our own when an outing that was promised is rained out. As we near physical maturity, we learn that just “doing good” isn’t enough; we have to do better than others–and we sulk when someone else takes home the “Best Player” award. Finally, as full adults, we’re faced with the reality that sometimes nothing we can do will guarantee what we want when we want it–that, in fact, “working harder” often seems to attract more hard work and nothing else. And we either revert to tantrums and sulking, or ruin our health with inward resentment, or both.

Precious few of us ever achieve the final stage of maturity–growing beyond entitlement and not only accepting that God knows best, but maintaining an attitude of spiritual joy even when everything we’ve worked for seems to crumble. Ironically enough, those who do achieve this stage may do it at any physical age and in the wake of any past record. Paul the scholar and high-achieving Jew and Christian came to realize God owed him nothing, but so did the “tax collectors and prostitutes” who responded eagerly to Jesus. The teenage prodigal and the fifty-plus CEO are equally capable of admitting, “I was a fool to think I could find some way to take full control of my world.” In anyone, it comes down to being willing to let God be in charge–even when we feel He’s disappointed us, even when we don’t feel like accepting what we can’t change.

Trying to “earn” the right to a “good” life is dangerous because it blinds us to how serious our imperfections really are. Ultimately, the hardworking brother is in worse shape than the prodigal for preferring congratulations to grace–he completely misses out on the greater joy of the latter.

Perhaps that’s one reason Jesus said we must become as little children. Whatever their faults, no one under school age feels adequately powerful to personally force time, traffic, and television to do as they want.

  • A blog for naturally melancholy Christians tired of being told to "snap out of it"; for Christians who struggle with mental-health issues and long for assurance God delights in them nonetheless; and for naturally optimistic Christians who want to understand their "gloomy" loved ones.

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    I am the go-to writer for people with tough stress issues and special emotional needs—and for those who love them, organizations that serve them, and anyone who just wants to better understand the world of mental/emotional struggles. Or who just wants to pick up some good stress-management tips! Visit my main website at

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See for copyright details.
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