“What if tough love is too tough?” the gorgeous fifteen-year-old, brown-eyed girl mumbled as she peered at me through the computer screen. She’d sent me a message through social media that asked if I’d be “open to chat.” In fact, that was her second message. The initial message simply said, “Hi.” It may seem simple, but “Hi” is a common way teens call for help online or via text, especially Black teens. They don’t want to appear weak or needy. So, they reach out, and if you nudge them and probe, the truth is there waiting to unfold. What taught them to do this? Tough love. Being taught that asking for help or showing need is a weakness that isn’t theirs to have. Black kids receive a lot of tough love and are often forced to learn it under the coding of “resilience” over and over again in all of their spaces, even when resilience is as common to Blackness as peanut butter is to jelly.
Black children are currently twice as likely to die by suicide than their White peers. The thing is, we’ve been taught that it can’t be our child. But, with the Black suicide rate up 200%, it’s all of our kids and their friends.
We’re often so busy teaching our kids to be strong that we overlook that they are…kids, living in a world where the strength we are forcing upon them is toxic. Why? Because growing up, we were taught that being soft, fragile, or sensitive were weaknesses that Black children couldn’t afford. We were also taught that Black children could and would overcome any emotional hardship. Lastly, we were taught that Black children would never take their own lives.
Times have changed. Black children are currently twice as likely to die by suicide than their white peers. The thing is, we’ve been taught that it can’t be our child. But, with the Black suicide rate up 200%, it’s all of our kids and their friends. I know this because I am an educator with a mission to impact as many children as possible. In addition, I have not only taught in over 30 countries to deeply study what the best education systems were doing for their children that we weren’t, or couldn’t, but I also built the first animated platform to highlight emotional health for Black children.
As an educator, I interact with thousands of children of color and depression, and loneliness, are pains that kids in even the most affluent and conscious homes deal with. It’s not a certain type of child that considers suicide. So, the best way to help your child is to expect that it may be your child, let go of the “tough, ” and focus more on the soft — love that is.
Soft Love Looks like Embracing Complaints
This requires deep listening and the ability to separate your own worth as a caregiver or parent from the complaints of your young ones. There is power in discomfort and irritability because young people are often more likely to discuss what they don’t like. Give them a safe space and opportunity to share what is bothering them without punishment. A pattern of frustration could indicate possible depression. It can be tough as a parent but try not to take things personally. It’s not about you.
Soft Love Looks like Validating their Emotions
Lecture less and share more stories. Validate their emotions by letting them know that they are not alone. The best ways to do this are by offering your own vulnerability and by giving them a “me too” moment. Vulnerability may feel counterintuitive because how many times have we been told, “I’m not your little friend?” You can share stories from your past, while being vulnerable, without any respect or authority being lost. In fact, young people often respect you more for being vulnerable and authentic.
One way to offer your own vulnerability is to share your own frustrations or difficulties first. Are you having difficulty sleeping? Are you missing connection with friends? Say so.
When you experience and give them an opportunity to chime in, they also get to experience a “me too” moment by realizing that they are undergoing a shared difficult experience.
Soft Love Looks Like Paying Attention to the Patterns of the Tongue
Negative generational patterns are often transferred through the tongue. When you have moments of pause that cause you to say, “I sound just like my mama/dad/insert parental figure here, ” it’s time to pause. Phrases like, “Because I said so, ” “Stop crying, ” and “Do as I say, not as I do, ” are all forms of tough love that leave little or no room to process emotions. Instead, listen and lean in.
When we consider breaking negative generational patterns within the Black community, we often focus on issues such as having a scarcity mindset, poor eating habits, and ignored trauma. Continuing to reinforce the concept of “Tough Love” is also a negative generational pattern that is not only hurting our kids, it’s killing them. The thing is, the concept of Tough Love is so deeply embedded in our culture that many of us don’t realize it when we’re reinforcing it. But, young people do and the effects are horrifying. Soft Love is not only healing, it just may save your child and your family. Tough love is too tough.
Gahmya is the founder of KidYOUniversity, a digital platform that empowers primary school aged children on subjects they typically skip over in the school curriculum, such as the importance of mental health, self-love, and emotional intelligence.