Tough Love For Teens

That brings us to the most difficult question with which parents are ever confronted: what can be done in those cases when parental leadership collapses altogether?  What resources are available to mothers and fathers when an adolescent continually breaks the law, intimidates or attacks his family and does precisely what he wishes?  If appeasement makes matters worse, as we have seen, what other approaches can we suggest?

Though it would be glib to imply that there are simple answers to such awesome questions, I believe one organization is on the right track.  It is called TOUGHLOVE, founded by Phyllis and David York.  TOUGHLOVE is dedicated to helping out-of-control parents regain the upper hand in their own homes.  Their basic philosophy is one of confrontation that is designed to bring a belligerent teenager to his senses.

The TOUGHLOVE concept began during the early 1980s, after counselors Phyllis and David York had run into serious problems with their eighteen-year-old daughter.  She broke every rule and eventually held up a cocaine dealer in Landsdale, Pa.  She was soon arrested at gunpoint in the York's home.  That got their attention.

From this painful experience, the Yorks began to formulate TOUGHLOVE principles.  They are simple enough: forgiveness and understanding are laudable responses of defiance, but they do not work with the most difficult cases.  As York said, "I started out being this nice therapist,  'Let me listen, let me be this daddy to you guys.'  And what really needs to happen is to grab these kids and say, ' You really can't do that.  You've got to follow the rules here, and if you don't we're going to call the police and have you locked up!"

Instead of groveling and whining, parents of rebellious teens are encouraged to stand firm and take appropriate action.  This may include taking away the family car, restricting use of the telephone and refusing to intervene when the teen is in jail.  It may also involve locking a drug user out of his home.  A note on the front door informs him that he will be welcome there only if he enrolls in a drug rehab program.  A teen who comes home hours after his curfew may find a note instructing him to spend the night with another family that is willing to take him in.

"Time" magazine, 8 June 1981, quoted TOUGHLOVE mothers as follows, "It's just old-fashioned discipline, where the parents run the home and there is cooperation among the family members."  Another said she turned in her son, Jeff 17, to the police after he confessed to robbing a nearby home to support his drug habit.  "Police enrolled him in a rehabilitation program," said Time, "and now he is back home, working and attending Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous."

Many similar examples are cited in the Yorks' book TOUGHLOVE.  But as might be expected, most parent lack the confidence and understanding needed to implement the principles on their own.  They need the support of other parents who are going through the same trauma.  They's why the TOUGHLOVE organization was founded.  It puts harassed parents in touch with one another.  Then if a teenager is sent to prison, for example, his distressed mother and father may ask other members of their local TOUGHLOVE group to visit him first, or to accompany them to the prison.  It is an idea whose time has come.

The article in "Time" magazine concluded with this statement:

TOUGHLOVE brings parents together to buck up one another at meetings and to follow the progress of problem youngsters.  If a runaway is picked up in another state or a youngster is arrested, members if the group are ready to go to the scene.  Says Ted Wachtel, president of the Community Service Foundation in Sellersville, Pa., which sponsors the TOUGHLOVE movement:  "If a child winds up in prison, it is sometimes too much of an emotional experience for the parents to go at first, so other members of the group make the visits."

TOUGHLOVE does not work all the time, but so far it has been an effective way of united parents to square off against the youngsters' own powerful peer group that endorses drug taking and rebelliousness.  One tactic of TOUGHLOVE is to make a list of a youngsters' closest friends, then go out and meet the parents of the friends and try to make an alliance.  The message: Don't feel guilty; don't get into shouting matches with youngsters; don't be a victim; get over the disillusionment.  Says the TOUGHLOVE self-help manual for parents:  "We really were not prepared for such a rapidly changing culture full of distractions like dope, violence, and a peer group that means more to our children than a home and family,"  In TOUGHLOVE's view, the time has come for parents to stand up against a hostile culture.(5)

What has been the public response to the TOUGHLOVE concept?  There were twenty-five groups scattered around the United States in 1981.  Today there are more than 1,500 in all fifty states and in Canada.  It has become a national movement.

If you are among those fed-up parents who have ready the end of your rope, you might want to contact TOUGHLOVE's national headquarters.  There address is:


Community Service Foundation

P.O. Box 70

Sellersville, PA  18960

Do I recommend them personally?  Yes, with two reservations: (1) TOUGHLOVE is not a Christian organization, although I have not known them to contradict our basic beliefs.  I wish a similar national program existed that emphasized prayer and Scripture, but I know of none.  In the meantime, TOUGHLOVE is getting job done.  (2) Any franchised program like this will be no better than the people who operate it on a local level.  You could get a lemon, so to speak.  I will say this, however: I have heard very little criticism of the TOUGHLOVE program in all these years.  Hundreds of grateful parents wrote to me after the Yorks were guests on our Focus on the Family radio broadcast.  One woman told our program director, "TOUGHLOVE literally saved my life.  I would not have survived without it."

5  "Time" Magazine, 8 June 1981

By James Dobson

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