Kyle MacDonald is an experienced psychotherapist and regular co-host on the NewstalkZB mental health awareness show The Nutters Club.

Kyle MacDonald: The problem with tough love on teens

I just don't think that withdrawing love and caring from a relationship should be used as punishment. Image / NZ Herald
I just don't think that withdrawing love and caring from a relationship should be used as punishment. Image / NZ Herald

"I'm worried my teenage son is using drugs. I've been told I should use a 'tough love' approach. What's tough love?" Concerned parent

Tough love sounds good, and there's little question that parents of teenagers need to set and maintain clear and consistent boundaries. But most approaches are more tough, than love.

It started in the late '60s as an approach to teen addictions and behaviour problems and is an approach that encourages strict and, at times, harsh limits by parents.

The aim is to encourage children to take responsibility for their behaviour. For instance refusing to have a "drug using" teen in your house, or support them financially, until they enter drug treatment.

Personally, I've always hated it, and there's not a lot of empirical evidence that it's all that effective either.

The theory is it brings the problems to the forefront, and while it doesn't fix the issues (only the individual can do that) it provides leverage, or pressure, to push the person towards positive change.

However we know a lot more about addiction, drug use and adolescence now than we did 50 years ago.

We know that addiction isn't a personality flaw, a disease or a failure of willpower. We know that the adolescent brain is still growing, and that regulating and controlling behaviour is, at times, overwhelming for teenagers. And we know that not all drug use leads to addiction.

The main problem I've always had with tough love though, and forgive me if this sounds sappy, is that the parent's job is to unwaveringly love their child. Unconditionally. And when I've seen tough love go wrong it's been because the teen has felt like the love and caring is being withdrawn.

And that's not tough, it's cruel.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for consequences: If you break it, you pay for it. If you live here, you contribute. If you want to use my iPad, then you need to do your chores.

I just don't think that withdrawing love and caring from a relationship should be used as punishment.

The alternative, however, is more complex. It involves constantly juggling the relationship, staying close and being emotionally available, with clear and consistent limits and boundaries on behaviour. It's essential that the consequences are carried out as calmly as possible, and not from a place of anger.

Because while it's true that young people need clear boundaries, and they certainly need their parents to help them control themselves at times, the nature of adolescence means they're unlikely to admit it. They're also unlikely to admit they really need your love.

Of course "experimentation" is every parent's worst nightmare, but if your teen is developing an addiction, like all addicts, they're doing it because they're in pain. When we're in pain, we all need love and reassurance. In fact sometimes it's the only thing that helps.

And while punishment might feel powerful to the person doing the punishing, I'm not convinced that punishment has ever really helped anyone.

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Kyle MacDonald is an experienced psychotherapist and regular co-host on the NewstalkZB mental health awareness show The Nutters Club.

Kyle MacDonald is in private practice at the Robert Street Clinic in Auckland. For more: psychotherapy.org.nz or his Social Anxiety resource site: overcomingsocialanxiety.com.

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