How to use tough love in a healthy way?

In this article we will be discussing what tough love is and how we can safely use it in the context of depression. 

We will also briefly discuss what depression is and how we can use tough love in a healthy way to help someone who is affected by depression.

How to use tough love in a healthy way?

Here are some steps that you can follow to use tough love in a healthy way:

  • Educate yourself about what depression is and about boundaries.
  • Consult with a professional if the person with depression is resistant about change. 
  • Be honest about how you could have enabled the behaviour.
  • Plan out how you are going to host an intervention.. 
  • Clearly tell the other person how their actions are being destructive. 
  • Step back and quietly watch for the person’s response in the form of action.
  • Accept the person’s free choice and their answer 
  • Hold the person accountable to the consequences you laid out in the beginning.

What is tough love

Tough love as an approach is for parents to consistently set firm limits and follow through with appropriate consequences as a way to guide and build positive behaviours.

It’s often used in the case of individuals that make risky choices which can be harmful for them and for others. In these cases, a person- in an act of tough love- allows the other to experience the consequences of their risky behaviour.

Another important aspect of tough love is to help the other person understand that they need to be responsible for their behavior and the choices they make.

Developing a strategy to develop tough love involves a series of important issues to be aware about. These include:

  • Consistency in setting limits and boundaries
  • Reasonable expectations
  • Being mindful of allowing people to make their own choices
  • Creating awareness about responsibility in ways that also show them that they are loved
  • Respecting the other person
  • Seeking help from professionals when needed
  • Taking firm stance when their behaviour becomes extremely dangerous or unsafe

What tough love is not

  • Tough love is NOT used to get you what you want. It is not a method or strategy to help you resolve frustrations and pet peeves in relationships. 

For example, not liking the way your son folds his laundry, or how your husband weeds the garden are not reasons to use tough love on them- rather these are simple issues to resolve either by communicating or by simply accepting the way they do things will not necessarily be the same way. 

So using tough love to get what you want or get other people to do what you want is not a healthy way to use it. 

  • Tough love is NOT a guaranteed solution. It might work on some people who have the insight and awareness of their own problems however, deeper and more destructive issues such as abuse, addiction, neglect are issues that tough love cannot guarantee to solve.

Tough love is an appropriate approach in these cases and can be an important puzzle piece toward healing. However, relying only on tough love to solve the problem might not be healthy.

  • Tough love is not to punish. Using tough love as a way to get back at someone for the hurt they might have caused is not a healthy way to address the issue. 

Using tough love as an excuse to punish- cause emotional and physical harm, or taking away needs as a way to teach a lesson is not the best way to deal with such anger and hurt. 

  • Tough love is NOT about control.

Tough love cannot force change in others nor is it a way to make people do what you want- that’s manipulation.

Even when survival is on the line, You simply can’t control another person and tough love is not done with the intent to control.

  • Tough love does NOT deny the importance of boundaries.

Boundaries are very much a part of tough love- it is about setting limits that allow both parties to meet their needs and are safe from unintended or intended efforts to control. 

Tough love is done with every intent to help someone else by respecting boundaries which also protects each other from hurt and unrealistic expectations. 


Depression or Major depressive disorder is a major mental disorder that impacts a large number of people world wide and is one of the leading causes of disability. 

Depression impacts a person’s cognition, emotions, and behaviors and tend to make it difficult for people to work optimally. 

People with depression exerience dysfunxtion in their day to day lives- they might find it difficut to work, maintain relationships, and meet their own physical and emotional needs as well as others.

These dysfunction in part is caused by the symptoms of depression. These symptpms include:

  • General discontent, guilt, and hopelessness 
  • loss of interest, loss of interest or pleasure in activities
  • mood swings, or sadness
  • Excessive crying, 
  • irritability, restlessness, 
  • Social isolation
  • Excess sleepiness, insomnia, or restless sleep
  • Excessive hunger, fatigue, or loss of appetite
  • Lack of concentration, 
  • Slowness in activity- thought, speech, and movements
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Weight gain or weight loss

These symptoms make it difficult for people to go over their daily lives and the major problem with depression is people do not understand that a person with depression cannot simply “get over it”.

When to use it in the context of depression

The misinformation and lack of knowledge when it comes to depression makes it a challenge for the person who is struggling with depression as well the people around the person affected.

People do not understand that depression is not a phase, rather it is a serious illness which is partly biological or caused by life experiences. It is not the person’s fault that they cannot “get their life together”.

So how do you use tough love in such a situation?

Tough love should be used as a last resort when it comes to a relationship that has a person who is affected by depression because of the nature of their illness. 

They are emotional and cognitively impacted in such a way that they think very lowly of themselves and often feel like they have no support around them even when they do because of cognitive distortions. 

However when you have done all that you could do to help them and you notice that their patterns of behaviour put them at risk, it is time to consider tough love.

However tough love when dealing with someone affected with depression needs to be done very carefully. 

Here are some steps that you can follow to use tough love in a healthy way:

  • Educate yourself about what depression is and what are the healthy ways of using tough love. Educate yourself about boundaries and what are the various resources you can use to help the person affected by depression.
  • Consult with a professional if the person with depression is resistant about change. Taking the guidance of a professional to help them with depression can be a good place to start. 

They can teach you ways to communicate assertively and also might help you identify your own patterns of behavior that enable maladaptive behaviours to continue.

  • Be honest about how you could have enabled the behaviour and what you might have to change about yourself to help them. 

At times, we are harsh with our own words and behaviour, we also tend to be dismissive of someone else’s problems when we ourselves are hurting and suffering. 

Being able to be honest about the ways you have handled things so far can also be a way for you to keep yourself accountable as an act of self-love. 

  • Plan out how you are going to host an intervention. Write out the plan which should include how their depression is affecting them and the people around them, take out examples from their lives to help create awareness of the problem. 

List of consequences of their behaviour and what they can do to help themselves along with resources and services to treat the disorder. 

  • Clearly tell the other person how their actions are being destructive. Use “I” statements to explain your boundaries clearly, honestly, and respectfully. Then explain what steps they need to take to change their behavior — and the consequences if that desired behavior doesn’t happen.
  • Step back and quietly watch for the person’s response in the form of action. Instead, let the other person choose whether they’ll take responsibility or not.
  • Accept the person’s free choice and their answer (in the form of their actions) — whether or not it’s what you wanted their answer (actions) to be.
  • Hold the person accountable to the consequences you laid out in the beginning.


In this guide we have discussed what is tough love and what are the healthy ways of using tough love on a person who has been affected by depression. We have also discussed steps involved in using tough love to help someone get help they need for their mental illness. 


Frequently asked questions related to “Tough love and depression”


Is tough love a good thing?

When used properly and healthily, practicing tough love is good when you have done everything to try and instigate awareness and change.

Healthy ways of using tough love is to understand that tough love is not a way to control but to form healthy boundaries and help someone help themselves.  

What is tough love in a relationship?

Tough love is when someone treats another person sternly with the intent to help them in the long run. In relationships it is to help a partner become aware of their destructive behaviours and help them choose change for themselves.

Is tough love bad?

Tough love can refer to a positive approach to parenting in which the child learns valuable lessons in a way that is supportive and preserves the dignity of the child.

When tough love does not teach positive life lessons and it is not supportive nor protects the dignity of the child, then it can turn dangerous. 

What is tough love parenting?

Tough love parenting involves setting clear boundaries and limits. Making clear that they are responsible for their choices and the consequences that follow. 

It does not involve attempting to rescue them, offering extra chances, or protecting them from the consequences of their actions. 

Rather tough love is about helping kids experience consequences for their behavior so that they can learn responsibility and choose change for their own betterment. 

What is tough love not?

Tough love is not about punishment. A partner should not ignore you, avoid you, or retaliate against you as a response to your actions that they do not like. Tough love is not about manipulating you or controlling you to do things that they want you to do or enforce change for their own benefit. 

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