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.


Secrets of Being Content in Whatever State You Are

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By “being content in whatever state you are” I don’t mean “don’t grumble because you can’t spend the winter in Florida instead of Illinois.” (Though that may be part of it.) I mean emulating the attitude of the Apostle Paul when he wrote, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Philippians 4:11, King James Bible).

Contentment is an almost-identical twin to the attitude extolled in another famous Pauline quote: “Always be joyful” (1 Thessalonians 5:16, New Living Translation). Both joy and contentment involve being happy just for the privilege of being alive and loved by God. But where joy energizes us for action, contentment relaxes us for rest. It’s probably no coincidence that Paul wrote “Always be joyful” from (it’s generally believed) Corinth when his missionary work was thriving, and “I have learned to be content” from Rome when he was living under house arrest.

And it’s probably not by accident that he said he had learned to be content. Another thing joy and contentment have in common is that they come naturally enough in “perfect” circumstances, but it takes some practice to keep them going when the good times cease to roll. If you can only be content when everything goes your way, you’ll have many more bad days than good ones. Worse, you’ll develop the habit of seeing even good days as bad if there’s the slightest room for improvement.

If you’d rather join Paul’s “content whatever the circumstances” club, the secrets of obtaining membership are:

Know God’s Promises

Many people become bitter at God because they were counting on Him to bring them the perfect spouse, get them a certain job, heal their sick friend–and He didn’t. The truth is, God never promised to keep our lives free of inconvenience or pain or even inexplicable tragedy. He promises to stay close to us, give us everything we need, and work everything out for ultimate good, but He doesn’t promise to do any of this according to our ideas of the best support, the real need, or the most effective good. When disappointed in what you thought God had promised, review His actual promises as written in Scripture, and ask Him what they should mean to you in your current situation. (Seeking advice from a discerning Christian friend may help.)

Accept God’s Sovereignty

By the time Paul was in Rome writing Philippians, his past several years had been one long interruption of plans. Originally, he had intended to make a short stop in Jerusalem and then go straight to Rome for another short stay. Then, a little problem of getting arrested in Jerusalem threw a long detour into those plans. When he wrote his letter, he still didn’t know when or if he would ever be free to continue his international mission trips. Nonetheless, he didn’t grumble that he had been counting on God to help his original plans run smoothly. He accepted everything that had happened as God’s will: more than that, he saw it as the fulfillment of God’s promise to stand by him and make his work effective. Do you believe wholeheartedly that God knows best and is in control of your situation?

Celebrate God’s Blessings

Paul could have found plenty of excuses to be bored or sullen or to complain that everything always went wrong for him. Instead, he thanked God for all he still had: wonderful friends, the privilege of seeing the gospel spread, the promise of Heaven. Whatever the challenges of his outward circumstances, he could face them with both contentment and joy because he had eternal treasures no one could take away.

Are you keeping your eyes on God and resting content in Him?

  • 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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  • About Me

    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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