Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Dismantling the Myth of Tough Love

Treating someone harshly in hopes to improve behavior is ineffective at best.

The urgent plea for change begs one basic question. How do we change someone’s behavior?
Source: UnratedStudio/Pixabay

The United States is currently experiencing unprecedented protesting in reaction to police brutality. Jenna Wortham characterized it as “the biggest collective demonstration of civil unrest around state violence in our generation’s memory.” This had led to several outcomes, including police reforms, dismantling statues with histories of racism, and increasing conversations about African American history, mental health, and the effectiveness of our prison system.

The urgent plea for change begs basic questions relating to the criminal justice system. How do we change someone’s behavior? Is it through rewards? Punishment? Do you in fact catch more flies with honey rather than vinegar, as the saying goes? Is it better to be harsh and unyielding to ensure we’re not “spoiling” children? Is it better to drop the hammer hard to discourage crime? These are questions we grapple with throughout the lifespan.

There are different philosophies about how to change behavior. Many in past generations encouraged a “tough love” approach. While definitions of "tough love" vary, it will be defined here as actions toward another that are cold, withdrawn, or punitive with the intent to improve behavior. Rather than taking a global approach to access the usefulness of this philosophy, let’s take a look at specific cases from birth to adulthood where this approach is ineffective or even harmful.

Just like toppling a statue from ugly origins, it’s time to dismantle these four “tough love” myths.

MYTH: Using harsh punishments such as spanking with young children will decrease problem behaviors. Spare the rod, spoil the child.

FACT: Mounting evidence indicates the opposite. Typically, children who are victims of spanking or other harsh punishments have more problem behaviors. As one report states, “Physical punishment is associated with increased child aggression, antisocial behaviour, lower intellectual achievement, poorer quality of parent-child relationships, mental health problems (such as depression), and diminished moral internalization.” Harsh punishments model problem solving through threats, violence, and aggression. It also leads children to avoid the punisher.

Parents should instead try acknowledging feelings and modeling empathy, stating why the behavior was wrong, and brainstorming solutions to the problem together. As Pam Leo said, "You can't teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. When children feel better, they behave better."

MYTH: Sending delinquent teens to strict and rigid programs such as "boot camp" will “scare them straight” and reduce future crime.

Boot camps where teens are subjected to military-like routine and discipline, make problem behaviors worse.
Source: GidonPico/Pixabay

FACT: Boot camps where teens are subjected to military-like routine, discipline, and physical conditioning, make problem behaviors worse long-term. Here, troubled teens are surrounded by other troubled teens, and essentially learn how to be better criminals. Juvenile awareness programs give teens a tour of prison facilities in hopes of scaring them enough to change. However, research shows these programs increase the likelihood of committing offenses in the future. Researchers have even found that teens who were sent to juvenile detention centers were more likely to commit crimes later compared to similar teens who were not.

Boot camps and detention centers remove teens from their environment, then return them to that same environment without addressing their surrounding influences. A more effective approach is multisystemic treatment. Here, a therapist and family work together to examine several factors that may be contributing to the problem behavior such as the community, peers, and school. Evidence shows this can strengthen family and community relationships and decrease overall criminality.

MYTH: Forced isolation such as solitary confinement (SC) makes criminals more compliant and decreases future offenses.

FACT: There are tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement in prisons across the United States, yet research shows that using SC as a punishment for inmate violence does not decrease the probability of future violence. It decreases self-control, as measured by increased risk-taking and reduced attentional performance. Its myriad of negative effects also include hallucinations, insomnia and paranoia, mood dysregulation, increased risk of suicide, and PTSD. One team of SC researchers noted, “prisoners may be less capable of living a lawful life than they were prior to their imprisonment.”

SC reform experts recommend excluding prisoners with current or prior histories of psychiatric disorders. Research suggests that the negative effects of SC are related to the way prisoners are treated by correctional personnel. Staff should be trained and monitored to avoid physical and verbal abuse. The authors emphasize the importance of clean, well-ventilated cells where prisoners have control of the lighting. Prisoners should also have access to personal items such as books, and recreational equipment.

MYTH: Legalizing harsh punishments such as the death penalty will deter crime.

Camilo Jimenez/Unsplash
Boot camps, juvenile detentions, SC, and the death penalty are more likely to be used on black offenders than whites.
Source: Camilo Jimenez/Unsplash

FACT: While the literature on the effectiveness of the death penalty has historically been mixed, most current leading criminologists agree that it does not deter crime. An in-depth analysis from Mendoza-Valles (2018) found that the death penalty not only fails to deter homicides but in some instances increases the number of homicides committed. This brutalization effect is thought to occur because of “the amount of human sanctity lost when people are executed (p. 31).” Just as spanking models problem solving with violence, some theorists propose that the use of capital punishment demonstrates killing as an appropriate response to those who have wronged us.

Adding to the problem is that black offenders are disproportionately sent to boot camps, juvenile detention centers, and SC, and more likely to receive the death penalty when compared to white offenders. Evidence suggests that while black and white offenders are equally likely to commit prison rule violations, black convicts are more likely to be written up for them, leading to more punishments such as SC. Not only are these programs failing their purposes to help rehabilitate and deter future crime, but they are also increasing the racial disparities we see today.

There are several areas where we work against our own societal interests without realizing it. Using strict “tough love” approaches to help anyone from children to adults sometimes feels like common sense. At times we may let our short-term desires for revenge or retribution lead us astray from our overall goals. Thankfully, research can guide us when our initial impulses take us off track from helping others. As we join the political conversation surrounding the current protests, let us look to evidence-based practices that reform our criminal justice system with long-term goals in mind.

More from Psychology Today

More from Veronika Tait Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today