Tough Love

I knew that adopting teens out of foster care was going to be difficult; difficult was what I was signing up for. 

“Lord, give me your lost and lonely, the outcast, the unloved.” Welcome here, broken. 

I was ready to love the unlovable. After all, wasn’t I “Auntie Cake”, Sunday school teacher extraordinaire? I could single-handedly manage a classroom of fifteen toddlers and had raised two delightful teens as a single mom. I hushed bawling babies and corralled special needs kiddos to their tired parents’ minivans each Sunday after service. “Send them home with me for a week,” I half kidded friends with unruly children, “they’ll come home calling you ma’am and begging to do the dishes.” My secret? Tough love. 

I’d take a difficult child and I’d adore them, all smiles and laughter, until they crossed a line. Immediately, I’d flip the switch, firm and strong, in control. All “O no, we don’t throw my toys” and “We are going to be gentle with our friends,” and “We make wise choices”. The second the behavior was corrected, sweet Auntie Cake would be back, full of love and grace for the newly repentant sinner.

O yeah, I was great at tough love. 

I clearly had a knack for difficult kids; I was going to be so good at this whole foster care thing! And what a travesty that no one ever took teens! I was going to be amazing with teens. No wonder God was calling me to this ministry. O, what great things I was going to do for the Kingdom!

And then they arrived. First my 16 year old came, fresh from “therapeutic” lock-down after her second suicide attempt, all angry raised razor blade scars, rage, and substance abuse issues. Her younger sister was driven in three days later straight from a failed placement. One where she’d lasted less than two months due to her behavioral issues, most notably her tantrums. Picture the mouth of a felon, the destructive strength of a tornado, and the self-control of a toddler all wrapped up in the world’s most easily offended pre-teen. They arrived apprehensive, hauling garbage bags full of all their worldly goods and even weightier resentments. 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

I pulled out my trusted tough love tactics and got to work, confident in my own super-parent abilities. 

But tough love? I failed at it. Instead I found my girls tough to love. 

Try adoring a child who is constantly manipulative, lying to and using every member of the family to get her next fix- be it for sugar, nicotine, or weed. I didn’t. I felt used and rejected and sulked. 

Try setting firm boundaries in a strong calm voice when your pre-teen is screaming obscenities at you while thrashing on the bathroom floor and kicking in your cabinets. I didn’t. I lost it and started screaming back. 

Stay rational and level-headed when a young woman flies at you in a rage, waving a stolen razor blade and threatening to end it all. I didn’t.  I lunged for the blade and ended up cutting both of us in the process. 

Good luck oozing love and grace to children who don’t seem to learn and just will not repent. I sure didn’t. I oozed resentment and bitterness instead. 

In the face of sirens and crisis stabilization units, failed drug tests and confiscated razor blades, sleepless nights and frantic days, I broke. God had given me exactly what I asked for and I was failing. Failing at what I was best at. Failing at the very thing I had spent a decade dreaming of and praying for. Failing at my calling. 

Fostering brought me to my knees both figuratively and literally. 

Time after time, I have locked myself in my room and fallen to the floor sobbing, “Daddy, I don’t have it in me. I can’t do this. I don’t even like them right now. How am I supposed to love them? I thought I would be good at this. I am screwing everything up!” 

And there, on my knees in complete surrender, is right where God meets me. Stripped of my pride. Stripped of my easy solutions. Stripped of my self-reliance. Completely dependent on God for the next word, the next move, and the ability to love my two hurting daughters. 

Because, as it turns out, I don’t actually have it, the kind of love my daughters need. It isn’t tough love; it’s Christ’s love.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV

Patient love. Kind love. Love that doesn’t boast and isn’t proud. Love that never dishonors my daughters. Love that isn’t self-serving. Love that isn’t easily angered. Love that keeps no record of wrongs. 

Love that always protects.

That does not stop trusting. 

That never loses hope.

Love that never ever gives up. 

The only love that never fails- Christ’s love. 


  1. This is an amazing post. It’s a “where the rubber hits the road” kind of post. And you told us like it is. Tough love versus Christ’s love. My wife and I are in the same situation with a 40 year old daughter, who is a single mother with a two year old, child of colour daughter. And our 40 year old daughter has a narcissistic personality disorder that has defied years and years of our accommodation. And the though crosses my mind, am I employing tough love now, to her latest self centred demands, when in fact Christ’s love is what is needed? My wife and I are both 75 years old and my wife now has limited capabilities due to health issues and we simply can’t do any longer, what we used to be able to do before. I am not asking you for an answer, but I am open to your thoughts. Blessings.

    Liked by 3 people

    • What a challenging situation, Bruce! And I don’t know the “right answer”.

      But here’s what I do know to be true: Christ’s word never comes back empty; it always accomplishes the purpose he sends it out to accomplish. Children are a blessing from the Lord- your daughter is and your grandchild is, no matter how dark this situation seems. Salvation comes through Christ alone and, no matter how much you might desire to, you cannot save your daughter; that’s Jesus’s job. God doesn’t waste a thing, not a single tear, not a single struggle- if put in his hands God will make beauty from the biggest struggles, the ugliest stories, and the most shattered dreams; just keep on handing the whole big mess back to him and pray your daughter will learn to do so too. Praying for you, Bruce. You have got to be so weary of all this by now.

      Yet those who wait for the LORD
      Will gain new strength;
      They will mount up with wings like eagles,
      They will run and not get tired,
      They will walk and not become weary.
      Isaiah 40:31

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you for responding so quickly. You’re right, it has and is a huge challenge and I lift this problem up to our Lord daily, many times with tears. I am at the point now where the only possible solution that seems viable is that God does what I cannot do. My wife’s health and mental well being is also a factor and we have had to set up boundaries where our request for some respect and consideration from our daughter is also addressed. It’s sad but for years we’ve gone above and beyond, in spite of our daughter’s continued self focused compulsions. Through God’s grace, my wife and I are closer because of this, rather than letting it tear us apart, which was and can be a very real possibility. On a lighter note, I can readily identify with some of your reactions because we’ve been there, on numerous occasions. From a practical perspective, I know that God can indeed provide His control over a situation that otherwise can go sideways very quickly. I’ve seen God intervene many times, but not always. It’s the not always that I’m curious about. How do you deal with those?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I have definitely seen this situation bind my husband and I together where it definitely could have torn us apart. And, yeah, we’ve seen the same. Sometimes we see miraculous intervention and sometimes it all goes off the rails. When I’m at my best, I am calm and empathetic and using all my trauma informed parenting skills to help my kiddos re-regulate, speaking wisdom to my husband, and transferring calm to the other kiddos. I wish I could say that that was always the case but there’s been plenty of times were He didn’t step in and I didn’t keep it together and those end in screaming battles, or me hiding in the closet crying, or a kid running off into the night. Then, I’m the one who has to repent. I have to keep coming back to my kiddos with an attitude of, “I’m sorry for my part in it. Regardless of what you were doing, I should have been more like Christ.” Very very hard.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Bruce and Kate, for letting me be a fly on the wall, listening to your conversation. After a time of intercession for both your families, I would like to share a video with you if you are interested. Every family can relate to Reversing Generational Curses since the first family refused the authority and love of our heavenly Father. I love you and will be blessed to see how He works through both your families.


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