Imagine you are a single mother, with a 14-year-old son whose bedroom is a tip. During one argument over mouldy toast under the bed, he punches a hole in the wall. He is so bad-tempered and unpredictable you're secretly slightly scared of him. What do you do?
Not easy, says clinical psychologist, Nigel Latta. But do-able.
The first thing to realise is that teenagers have outgrown their brains. Their judgment is faulty.
Most of the time they're driven by hormones and physical triggers that mean they are not in control of either their minds or their bodies.
"If you take teenagers seriously they can be terribly hurtful," he says. "I spend a lot of time explaining to parents that though their child is looking more and more like an adult he's still a long way from being there. So when he starts saying 'I hate you', and 'you're a fucking bitch', you shouldn't take it seriously."
"It doesn't excuse the behaviour but if you can understand it, it doesn't freak you out, scare you or hurt you quite as much."
Once you have calmed down, he says, take control of the situation. Be the adult. Act confident. Above all, don't get emotionally involved no matter how much they taunt you. Latta talks fast and furious, his sentences laced with swear words and pithy sayings.
He claims to have started whacking his kids because of Sue Bradford and recommends watching the parenting style of silverback gorillas on Youtube to get a feel for how laid-back you need to be. And true, after a few minutes of watching the silverbacks mooch around on their knuckles, chew leaves, twirl with joy to the spray of a hose, play with their babies and deal the odd swipe when they need to, you start to get the idea.'
The next step is to follow the detailed instructions in his new book, Before Your Teenagers Drive You Crazy, Read This!
If this all sounds way over-the-top it is important to realise that 40-year-old Latta has a string of qualifications in both private and government-related counselling that stretches to 18 years of dealing with many of this country's nastiest, rudest, worst-behaved children and teenagers.
He graduated with honours in psychology from Auckland University then moved on to a postgraduate diploma in clinical psychology. His supervisor was Ian Lambie, now Auckland University's senior lecturer in psychology and specialist in child and teenage forensic psycholgist, and the two have worked together on various programmes, ever since.
Latta also has sons of his own, and though they only five and eight admits that until he became a father, had a much less realistic grip on how to work with kids. His first non-fiction book, Into The Darklands, which looked at the workings of the criminal mind, was made into a television series starring the psychoses of criminals including William Bell, Jules Mikus, Taffy Hotene and Terry Clark.
The second, titled Before Your Kids Drive You Crazy, Read This!, dealt with parenting young children, was sold in "cool countries": Russia, Brazil, Italy and Israel. He wrote his latest one because people, particularly his clients, asked him to set down his methods for parenting teenagers in easy-to-follow print form.
Two years ago Latta moved to Dunedin where he now spends much of his time working with more troubled children, adolescents and their families. Why Dunedin?
Mainly because the Oamaru-born Latta needed to pay off the family's "enormous Auckland mortgage". As he explains with a wince, his wife had long-since given up the career in dentistry that was meant to make them rich. Now she organises her husband's growing writing, counselling, public speaking and media empire.
The mix of skills mean that Latta's methods have that chime of clear, workable sense - both for the model nuclear family (two parents, plus 2.1 children), single parents with grouchy, angry, physically imposing offspring, down to kids so dysfunctional they end up before the courts.
Latta believes the key to effective parenting is good communication coupled with robotic disengagement - remaining removed and dispassionate no matter how your teenagers act up. You also need to teach your children cause and effect. Which, says Latta, includes punishment, even if it isn't fashionable. As he says, positive reinforcement alone does not work. "If you look at youth and the increasing number of kids who don't give a monkey's about things like restorative justice and family group conferences, we should all be worried.
"What we have to do is work out the difference between punishment and being punitive," he says. As he sees it, being punitive isn't effective. Punishment, on the other hand, makes it uncomfortable for kids to keep on doing bad things - and is vital.
"Punishment remains an effective way to change behaviour," he writes. "Give them reasons to be good by all means. But we must also give them reasons not to be bad! Effective punishment means people have to sit down and do the maths - and work out why it doesn't add up to keep on offending."
So back to that out-of-control 14-year-old. How do you snap the circuit and make him behave?
As Latta said at the beginning, it may not be easy, but it is perfectly do-able. And, he adds, it is complicated. You really do need to read the book!
Before Your Teenagers Drive You Crazy, Read This! (HarperCollins) $26.99. Release date June 1.
LATTA'S GUIDE TO PARENTING TEENS
The key is to communicate. And that doesn't always mean talking - it can mean just being around.
Establish a one-on-one relationship with your teenager. "All discipline systems are built on a bedrock of relationship. Without it, you have no leverage," Latta writes. "And this is not a friendship: Your kid has plenty of friends. He needs parents."
Such relationships take time and effort - perhaps a shopping trip together, eating fish and chips, driving to where they want to go, holidays, watching sport. And, with boys particularly, just hanging out. "Not necessarily talking."
* When teenagers act up, remember you are not dealing with normal people. Act like the silverback gorilla: be tough when you must be.
* Be a leader, don't be a softie.
* Refuse to be drawn into teenage chaos and anger. (More silverback gorilla. "Act like the rock, not the sea.")
* Be brief (mothers to boys, especially). Say what you need to say then shut up: "No, you can't go to your friend's place tonight. Full stop."
* Negotiate, then set rules. "They tell your kids you care about them."
* Make those rules simple - "not too loose, not too tight".
* Make pocket money performance-based.
* Reward good behaviour, punish bad behaviour.
* Bribe them: use your superior money supply to keep them in line.
* Don't make their problem your problem. Instead of "why should the rest of us have to live in a house that stinks because you're too lazy to clean up your room?" say: "You have one hour to clean up your room. If you don't, I will be coming in with a large plastic bag and throwing anything I think is suspect into that bag and taking it to the dump. Your time starts now."
* Have realistic expectations. For example, hygienic, vermin-free bedrooms are essential; super-tidy rooms are not.
* Make decisions and keep making them.
* Make it your business to know what your teenagers like to do with their time (the internet is great for this).
* Out-manoeuvre them by networking with other parents using the kids' own tools: texting, cellphones and email.
* Speak their language by getting IT-savvy. Check out YouTube, Facebook and the rest.
* The New Zealand Herald has five pairs of tickets to a lecture by Nigel Latta at Westlake Boys High at 7.30pm on June 3. To win a ticket, valued at $15, write your name, address and phone number on the back of an envelope and send to Teenage competition, Weekend Review, P.O. Box 3290, Auckland.
Entries close noon Wednesday May 28.