Tough love is an expression used when someone treats another person harshly or sternly with the intent to help them in the long run.
Milliken strongly emphasizes that a relationship of care and love is a prerequisite of tough love, and that it requires that caregivers communicate clearly their love to the subject.Maia Szalavitz believes, based on her own experience, that this may be difficult, since some people experiencing addiction consider themselves unworthy of love and find it difficult to believe others love them.
In most uses, there must be some actual love or feeling of affection behind the harsh or stern treatment to be defined as tough love. For example, genuinely concerned parents refusing to support their drug-addicted child financially until he or she enters drug rehabilitation would be said to be practicing tough love.
The term has been appropriated to justify authoritarian parenting and boot camps for teenagers which Maia Szalavitz characterizes as abusive. The National Institutes of Health noted that "get tough treatments do not work and there is some evidence that they may make the problem worse". Szalavitz believes tough love rhetoric encourages unnecessarily harsh rules, "brutal confrontations", and a presumption that pain produces growth.
The British think tank Demos asserts that tough love, understood as authoritative parenting in contrast to authoritarian parenting, is beneficial in the development of preferred character traits in children up to five years old.