Our love as youth leaders for our youth can manifest itself in different ways. We meet with them at ungodly hours for breakfast or a late night snack. We’re there for them in the middle of the night when their parents are fighting again. We’re only a call away when they need to cry on our shoulder because their relationship has gone awry. We pray for them, think about them, care for them, all in the name of love.

But sometimes, the best way to show our love is by setting very clear boundaries. Sometimes the best way to love our youth is by saying no, by communicating the consequences of certain actions. Sometimes the only way we can express our love is by making it tough love.

In youth ministry, tough love often means excluding disruptive youth from certain activities, or from youth group in general. That’s a decision that is contrary to what most of us youth leaders believe in, because we want youth to be present, to learn, to be touched by God.

But we need to understand and accept that no matter how much we want them to be there, it’s still their choice. We can’t make them like it, we can’t make them be interested in the spiritual truths we have to offer and we can’t make them play a constructive role. We can invite them, make them feel loved and welcome, but the rest is up to them. That means that sometimes we have to un-invite them, even though we still love them deeply.


But how do you know when it’s time for tough love?

When the group suffers for the individual

Youth group is not a democracy, but in general you have to do what’s best for the majority. If the actions of one or two of your youth have a consistent negative impact on the group as a whole, it’s time for some tough love.

When soft love no longer works

If a youth constantly disrespects the boundaries, breaks the rules, and ignores your repetitive kind and loving reprimands about the consequences of these actions, it’s time for some tough love. It’s a big step, because as youth leaders we don’t want to lose youth, we don’t want them to feel unwelcome or unloved. But allowing them to be present while disrupting everything doesn’t work for anyone, including them.

When God tells you to let go

Obviously, prayer should be at the top of your list when it comes to dealing with disruptive youth. Ultimately, it’s God who has to give you the wisdom to make the right decision. Until you have absolute peace in your heart about any steps you want to take, wait it out.

Communicating tough love

The most important part about doing tough love the right way is in communicating it. Anything said in anger or frustration, will miss its mark. For your tough love to work, you will have to communicate it clearly, lovingly and from a place of internal peace about what you’re doing. Here are a few tips on how to do that:

  • Be loving: always start by saying you love this person, no matter what they do. This needs to be more than lip-service!
  • Be honest: tell them what their behavior is doing to you, to your youth group or youth activity and why you are forced to act out some tough love.
  • Be clear: what decision have you made? What ‘hard rule’ are you going to enforce and how are you going to do this? Also be very clear about when this rule will be lifted, what this youth needs to do in order to be welcome again.
  • Be short: nobody likes hearing bad news, even when you’re a rebellious sixteen-year-old. It’s best to keep this whole conversation short, under five minutes, unless the youth themselves wants to talk about it further.
  • Be prepared for anger: the most likely response will be anger, so be prepared for this. Dependent on the level of disruptive behavior, there may even be some sort of retaliation.

Acts of tough love afterwards often result in feelings of guilt and doubt. That’s okay and completely normal. The best way to deal with this is to keep reassuring yourself of the reasons for having taken this step and asking God to give you His peace that surpasses all knowledge.

And don’t forget to keep praying for the youth you’ve disciplined. Take heart and don’t lose hope, it won’t be the first time that tough love, not soft love made a life-changing difference for a troubled youth.