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Tough Love?

tough love

Tough Love?

When it came to managing life around my addicted Loved Ones, some of the earliest advice I was given seemed to always center around the term “Tough Love.”

“You have to give tough love.”

As if it were simple. As if it wasn’t tough already. But I’d fought so hard with the situation by then that I was running out of energy and ideas.

Tough love, I was told, was the only hope I had left.

The advice always hit my heart like a hot brick. I hadn’t exactly been giving the situation soft love, or easy love. I’d been in this battle a long time, and was pretty much just trying to make it through each day without my heart exploding.

I wasn’t given precise direction, just the concept. So my thoughts were, “What exactly is it? What does tough love mean?”

I wanted to understand how we go about being tough and loving to a family member as they are spiraling.

The advice given to me was to cut off contact, close the doors, turn my back.

I was desperate and willing to do whatever I had to if it would make the situation better.

So, I tried it. Things got worse. I hated it.

More important, it didn’t work. Not for us anyway.

I began to question the tough love concept even more.

Considering the fact that we’ve heard tough love preached for more than twenty years, surely if it worked, we wouldn’t be in an epidemic…?

* * *

I have come to believe that we have to love our sons and daughters (and other loved ones) who struggle with addiction differently. But not necessarily with harsh, tough love.

We need to learn to navigate the relationships with wisdom, versus inappropriate helping and codependent involvement (which is always more about us and our need feel in control, safe, or at ease).

I developed a personal strategy that I called Smart Love, instead of tough love.

So, what does Smart Love look like?


Most of us are used to loving our family members a certain way. Showing love has meant helping, getting involved, being self-less, etc. But similar to our child crossing the threshold from minor to adult, once substance use has entered a family, we need to learn new ways of navigating the relationships.

Rules, needs, expectations and situations have all changed.

There are so many available resources to help us in the process. Support groups, online family groups, books, therapy, therapy workbooks, etc. If we are willing, guidance is available. It just takes time and effort.

Learning new ways to respond is tough love, it’s tough for us!


Some may choose to do that for their own peace and safety, but it’s okay not to!

Bottom-line: there is no one-size-fits-all approach to addiction in a family.

* * *


Smart Love doesn’t shame a person for having a chemical struggle.

Jason, a recovering heroin addict with 4 years recovery, explained to me that when one of his parents came at him with condemning criticism, even when it was the truth, he heard them like one hears the teachers on Charlie Brown: “Waaaa waaah waaaa waaa waaa waaa.” 

They already know they’ve crossed lines with ethics, morals, loyalty and family.

They already know what they should be doing.

Reminding someone of the shameful parts of themselves will not speed anyone toward treatment.

It shuts people down.

People need to hear they are more than all the bad stuff… that their lives are worth salvaging. They need to know we haven't forgotten that they had plans, goals, dreams once!

And that those things still matter. They are a person who matters.

We can absolutely guard the areas violated, and protect our vulnerability to having things stolen, manipulated etc., while still letting our person know that we are in their corner, and that we will love them along the journey, rain or shine.

* * *


Allowing an adult to face their consequences is a tough, but necessary, part of the process that we’ve all struggled with from time to time.


The whole family needs to roll their sleeves up and do hard, introspective work to heal. Untreated family disease is the cause of so much of the mess we are in.

It may require us to accept space and separation in order to give our struggling addicted person the dignity to seek help and accomplishment for themselves, versus participating in problems, conflict, chaos or consequences.

Doing our own work is crucial.

Doing another person’s work is where craziness happens.

 * * *


We can give love, kindness, mercy and support to someone active in their addiction—without being trampled upon, or being militant and condemning.

This is where our work lies.

I believe connection and love heal addiction. Smart, wise love.

Healthy love.

Loving, wise support given by a group of family, friends, or others who esteem the humanity of an addicted person with kind, positive regard.

A group of people who are also doing deep introspective work to recover from life situations themselves, alongside their addicted loved one.

That’s a formula that I have come to personally experience and believe: it leads to healing from addiction.

For everyone.

It’s a family disease.

Still learning,


Annie Highwater is a Writer, Speaker, Podcast Host and Family Advocate. She has a particular interest in family pathology and concepts of dysfunction, addiction, alcoholism and conflict. Annie published her memoir, Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction, in 2016. Her story sheds light on the personal challenges facing the affected parents and family members, and illustrates how family dynamics both help and hinder the recovery process. Annie’s second book, Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache was published in August of 2018. She resides in Columbus, Ohio and enjoys writing, long distance running, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in California as often as possible.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. Being fairly new to this site and the reality of having two kids with addictions-I still feel like I have been hit between the eyes with a brick. I simply don’t know how to relate to them and this new reality-you put it well that it must change. It’s been helpful to use the method of drawing close when they are not under the influence and not engaging when they are. And oh how they need love, I do try and curb criticism ( born from my hurt ) and that helps too. i still hate that I can’t just relax and not think about how I am relating to them-oh how I hate that we can’t just be us. Tough love for me just fell flat. I like that other ideas are being explored and perhaps the way to help is maintain a connection and nudge toward healing.

  2. Thank you. I couldn’t agree more and I’m on a mission to help families understand the concept of “smart” love. Great article. I’d love to share on FB if it’s available publicly. Dian

      1. Hello Ella312,
        There is no way to share an article from this member site on FB, because it’s password protected. However, we publish many of our posts (sometimes slightly modified) on our public-facing site. I will ask the person in charge of this to let you know when this article becomes available to the public.
        Thanks so much for your interest, and for spreading the word!

  3. Annie,

    Wish everyone thought exactly like you!

    Especially was warmed by this truth: “People need to hear they are more than all the bad stuff… that their lives are worth salvaging. They need to know we haven’t forgotten that they had plans, goals, dreams once!”

    LOs must feel helpless to their addiction yet the families of the LOs feel helpless to their helplessness and this is like an exponential dose of the most destructive emotion a human heart can feel. CRAFT gives us things WE CAN DO that empower us to escape the debilitation of helplessness. I like to have a list of safe things to say to a LO active in addiction or recovering like: “I love you!” “you aren’t alone” “we’re going to get through this” in addition to the more complicated methods of CRAFT.

    Perhaps you can expand on a list of safe things to say to an addict Annie. I hope so for all our sakes. The other things we can do is get a treatment plan ready yet also realize the state of the world today that most rehabs have a long waiting list. DETRIMENTAL. Things we can do? Get active in the community to change the status quo in your area. Talk to local, state and national politicians and community leaders to affect change along the lines of Safe Stations (fire department stations that an addict can go to and be given a “warm handoff” to an expert skilled in motivational interviewing of people with SUD). CRAFT and what Dominique has done in Massachusetts ie. StateWithoutStigma, free membership to and G0d knows the rest she will accomplish with the morale of people being saved by this.

    Goals for US and world: States Without Stigma and Safe Stations with warm handoffs of addicts/alcoholics to experts at CRAFT or motivational interviewing and open beds for immediate intake of addicts/alcoholics and sliding scale fees based on their situation and ability to pay or need to be subsidized. I think in the long run this type of thinking will actually cut the costs to taxpayers that foot the bill in many socialized ways already by default.

    Obstacles to goals: foolish thinking and focus on consequences instead of precursors and wisdom like we learn on this site and from reading books, posts, and podcasts like yours.

    Action items: call senators and representatives and open a dialogue and look for wishes/dips in them to make these suggestions of proactive things our state and local communities can do now.

    Smart love is the answer and I think being proactive is the cure of the learned helplessness we suffer because of our lack of real science and evidence based practical knowledge in our communities. There is hope. Annie, keep up the serenity and effort on the important things. It takes a team spirit so let’s expand by continuing to do all you are doing and reach out and not take no for an answer when yes is the answer. G0d bless you.

    1. Dear 228, thank you for your thoughtful response! Yes, their dreams still matter…THEY matter. SO so critical to keep that in mind and to remind them sincerely and often. It made a world of difference to my son when I spoke those things to him. Helplessness was a downfall for me. I struggled so much with that, I couldn’t accept doing nothing. I HAD to find tools and strategies. It was just too important, my family is too important. I agree with you, there is much we can do and CRAFT is a power tool when it comes to that.

      When it came to safe things I would say, I made it personal, and specific. My son has always been a talented athlete, that was our ticket into opiate addiction (as it came as a result of a football injury and doctor’s orders for pain medication). I spoke to the heart of the athlete that I knew was still there. “You loved being in the game, but right now it is as if everyone is fighting for your life…except you. I want to encourage you to get off the bench and get in the game!” I often spoke in baseball terms since that was his passion, I said things in championship terms. I rooted for him, like I did every time he scored a touchdown, or launched a grand-slam homerun over the fence!

      When it came to my Mother, I spoke to the dignified lady she is and complimented those things, or told her how I missed certain things…without being manipulative or insulting. It’s a process, it’s not a one-size-fits all by any means, but I found for those in my life, speaking specific encouragement that was personal to WHO they are – was life-changing.

      I love your knowledge, passion and heart for doing what works for these people who are important, every single one of them matters. This is truly a work of compassion and it thrills my soul that more people are starting to get that!

      I will respond to your other comment on the discussion blog soon! Thank you so much for all of your input, members like you are why Allies exists and hopefully continues to thrive.

      Love and hope,


  4. Love this post, it’s a great summary of what we strive for and the challenges we face (not the least of which is well-meaning friends and family telling us we need to turn our backs on our kids).