Issue 375 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


I’m grateful to The Sun for publishing Marc Polonsky’s interview with Maia Szalavitz [“The Myth of Tough Love,” January 2007] and his personal memoir about spending time in a drug-treatment program as a teen [“The Seed,” January 2007]. In 2002 I left an adolescent “treatment” center that was an offshoot of Straight Incorporated, one of the programs Szalavitz criticizes. Since then two of my former fellow residents at the center have committed suicide; another was rescued after a failed suicide attempt; many others, like myself, have struggled to maintain stability or a sense of hope.

In my experience the abusive counselors and environment created a more complete sense of powerlessness than any drug ever could. Psychological defeat from any source is destructive, and love is the true foundation on which to construct a meaningful life.

Alicia Orihel Holland, Michigan

The interview with Maia Szalavitz reminded me of my experience working in the troubled-teen industry.

I was once charged with leading a support group for teens alleged to have drug problems. Most of them had been enrolled in the program for minor infractions, such as smoking a joint with friends behind the bleachers at school. One sixteen-year-old’s mother had put him into treatment because he’d drunk a single beer with his father (her estranged husband) on a hunting trip. Other group members included a girl with an apparent eating disorder who sometimes went days without food; a thirteen-year-old whose cocaine-using stepmother resented her; and a teen who’d been molested by her mother’s boyfriend, who was about to be released from prison. The one boy with a daily pot habit seemed out of place.

Drugs were a convenient scapegoat for these families’ problems, and treatment “professionals” were happy to enable the parents’ delusion, as long as the state funding kept coming.

Barbara Saunders San Francisco, California

Tough love was the prevailing parenting philosophy in my household when I was growing up and, later, in the military school I was made to attend. Not only was the tough-love approach ineffective, it led to more behavioral and mental problems. Today I sit in a prison cell, serving a ten-year sentence for a crime I committed when I was seventeen years old. Though I am aware that I am responsible for my actions, I can’t help but feel that all the tough love I received from an early age is in large part the reason I am here.

Though Maia Szalavitz sheds much light on the subject of tough love, she seems to apologize for the parents who commit their children to tough-love institutions, saying that they are “well intentioned.” I believe such parents are irresponsible, and perhaps even spiteful, toward their children, who have failed to meet the parents’ expectations. Although parents are deceived by the people who run the facilities, it is ridiculous to think that banishing a child from the household at a young age is ever going to be beneficial. Szalavitz’s portrayal perpetuates the parents’ belief that they did nothing wrong, that it is all the child’s fault.

Christopher Horney Huntingdon, Pennsylvania

I read Marc Polonsky’s interview and essay with equal parts sorrow and recognition. Having been a music therapist for several years in a private psychiatric hospital, I have seen even trained professionals play games with the lives of young people. It was astonishing how many times a patient’s length of treatment coincided exactly with his or her insurance coverage.

Two years into my four-year stay, the hospital was bought by a large corporation, which replaced therapists with guards. After the first chaotic (and dangerous) year, we received the corporation’s regional performance award — for increasing profits.

During my time there, I realized that the phrase emotionally disturbed teenager is redundant. I firmly believe that most of our patients would have been just fine were it not for the adults whose neuroses had molded them.

One of my favorite patients was actively suicidal, and had decided he really was as worthless as the adults in his life had told him. He was discharged (despite my vehement objections) the day his insurance ran out. He went home and killed himself. And I quit.

Eddie Gwaltney Yazoo City, Mississippi

My own tough-love experience was in a wilderness-survival program. I was a thirteen-year-old ward of the state, recently removed from an abusive home. The program’s “let’s be mean to teens in the woods” philosophy — as Maia Szalavitz perfectly describes it — only reinforced the distrust and anger I felt toward adults and authority figures. Luckily I loved the isolation and being in the wilderness.

When will our country realize that the tough-love ideology only aggravates teens’ problems, and even creates new ones?

Shannon Michael Clark Tucson, Arizona

I was shocked The Sun would publish Maia Szalavitz’s one-sided and vicious attack on what she calls the “tough-love” industry. Yes, there are several programs for troubled kids whose techniques sound unethical, but what about the dozens, if not hundreds, of programs that are effective at helping kids?

I have worked for several wilderness programs that teach teens teamwork, build their self-esteem, enhance their communication skills, and help them take responsibility. These programs were not operated by novices. Many such programs use evidence-based practice and conduct long-term studies that demonstrate positive, not traumatic, outcomes. I urge The Sun to do more research before publishing an interview such as this. The extreme “tough-love” programs are rare and give the industry a bad reputation. A lot more good than damage is being done.

Hillary Logan Weaverville, North Carolina

Having worked as a wilderness counselor at Second Nature in Utah, I found most of the comments by Maia Szalavitz one-sided and misleading. To say that all wilderness programs boil down to “Let’s be mean to teens in the woods” is irresponsible.

The program I worked for was founded by a therapist, and the approach was not punitive. Creative thought was encouraged for both the teens and the staff. The kids lived simply, amid arresting beauty, and learned about the environment and how to be resourceful. It was not a nightmare situation.

Though I would not deny that punishable offenses have occurred at some programs, I think Szalavitz’s comments are unfair to those who have dedicated a large portion of their lives to assisting kids in need.

Tim Almodovar Point Loma, California

Maia Szalavitz admits to no shades of gray. According to her, tough love is all bad, because it “condemns other approaches as too soft, but when you stigmatize empathy and compassion and altruism, you end up with a society that says torture is OK.” If I remember correctly, tough love began as something parents practiced on their own kids. How could there be no empathy or compassion? And torture?

She says the programs’ ideology is “leniency is bad, and kindness only encourages weakness and misconduct.” Substitute the word permissiveness for kindness, and perhaps we can see why parents might think a little tough love is needed.

When asked if all tough-love programs are as bad as the four she focuses on in her book, which do indeed sound bad, Szalavitz says that some may not be: “I wasn’t able to research every one of them.” So we don’t know if her sample was representative or skewed.

Citing ignored emotional needs as an example of abuse, she defines tough-love programs as operating “on the premise that teens in trouble need to be broken down and rebuilt.” That’s exactly what basic training in the military has long been said to do. No doubt some beleaguered military recruits would say their emotional needs are being ignored, but it would be hard even for a pacifist to deny there is some benefit from basic training.

Could it be that some of the teen programs that Szalavitz did not have time to research had similar benefits, or were even, on balance, good for kids?

Coyd Walker Scottsbluff, Nebraska
Maia Szalavitz responds:

Even though I focused on some of the worst tough-love programs, I was not highlighting aberrations or ignoring programs that do good. After more than thirty years of selling “tough love,” the industry cannot provide a single controlled study proving its methods to be effective, or even not harmful. This goes for wilderness programs too; the studies cited by Hillary Logan are uncontrolled and are not published in peer-reviewed journals, making them little more than anecdotes.

I do believe some wilderness programs for troubled teens are not based on a philosophy of “let’s be mean to teens in the woods,” but because the industry is unregulated, it is impossible for a parent to know what sort of treatment a child will actually get. In my book I cover a death that occurred at one of the best wilderness programs in the country — and, as in the worst programs, it happened because a child’s complaints were ignored by staff. Wilderness may be a healing environment for some children, but when a program assumes that any clients who complain are “faking” in order to get free, it is simply unsafe. A child can get all the benefits of being in the wilderness by entering a program for regular teens — or, even better, taking a family camping trip.

As for the comparison of tough love to boot camp, basic training is designed to prepare adults for the privations of war, not to turn troubled kids around. The effects of basic training cannot be separated from the fact that, after the training is over, recruits get a new job and a new identity as defenders of their country. And in today’s volunteer services, recruits can quit basic training, they can make phone calls, and there are rigorous complaint procedures and strict oversight. Two teens who joined the services following “tough-love” programs told me they found basic training to be a piece of cake by comparison. And several military men I interviewed were horrified to learn how boot-camp-style tough-love programs degrade and pervert that military tradition.

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