Q: My son is 15 and his behaviour is vile. He's turned into a monster, angry, sulky and won't participate in the family life at all. It all feels like it came out of the blue and we don't know what to do. Someone has suggested "tough love" to us. Is that a good idea?
A: The problem with "tough love" is it's half right, and it isn't the tough bit. There's no question that parenting teenagers can be hard but more punishment is almost never a good idea. In essence, tough love promotes an approach that focuses on hard clear boundaries, emphasises "consequences" - in other words punishment - and discipline.
It can sound appealing in the situation you're in, I'm sure, so what's the problem?
The first thing to get really clear about is that the teenage brain hasn't finished growing yet and the piece that is least developed is the part of the brain - the pre-frontal cortex - that inhibits behaviour. It's the handbrake on impulsivity and helps us to regulate strong feelings. And, of course, there's the hormones.
This is not to say any of this is an excuse, but it is to say that having really big feelings and not being very good at managing the resultant behaviour is situation normal. And reacting to that with punishment is like trying to have a conversation with a part of their brain that doesn't exist yet - and even more so when in they're in the grip of the strong feelings.
One of the hardest tasks as a parent is to feel hated - to be the target of rage and anger - by our little darlings. But like it or not, it's part of the job.
In therapy we talk about the idea of "containment", a little piece of psycho-babble that highlights the need to be able to tolerate, accept, validate and - most importantly - not react to the emotional outpourings of others that we are close to.
And most of the time "tough love" - much like using violence as discipline with younger children - is simply an excuse for adults to react. If we're really brutally honest with ourselves as parents, we punish as a way to express our own anger - and feel okay about it.
That isn't to say there isn't a place for clear boundaries, but limits and expectations delivered with love and not in the heat of the moment is a completely different thing. Too often we punish after the fact, in the heat of the moment, without warning or consistency.
All of this is important, because actually the most important part of the puzzle is to keep working on understanding why your son is so distressed. Because anger - being "vile" - doesn't come from nowhere, not even for teens.
It may take time, and it may also seem that whatever has upset them is even trivial to adult ears, but being calm, clear, loving and consistent is vital when it comes to creating an environment where they feel they can be open with you about their problems.
Punishing someone who already feels upset - and even in pain - is not only ineffective, it's cruel.
So be patient. Plant a flag on the moral high ground, tolerate your son's withdrawal and keep the door open. Keep inviting him to participate, stay calm and be clear about expectations for behaviour - but only when you're not angry yourself. By all means set limits and consequences but do so calmly, explain them beforehand and be consistent.
And if you do lose your cool in response, because we're all human - apologise. Be the bigger person.
But above all, don't stop asking if he's okay, and if there's anything bothering him he'd like to talk about.
Parenting teenagers is a long game, but love and kindness wins out in the end. Control at the cost of the relationship is never a good long-term approach, even if it seems like a good idea in the moment.