Help! Is It Time for Some ‘Tough Love’ with Our Teenage Son?

We've tried to raise our 15-year-old son the best we can, but we're at a loss right now. We've found baggies of marijuana in his room three times, and he's never denied that he uses pot. He comes home smelling like cigarettes or alcohol (or both) sometimes. His friends are bad influences, too. He's been suspended from school twice, once for getting into fights and once for not showing up to class. He's going somewhere, just not to school, and that worries us. Sometimes he doesn't even come home and we wait for a phone call that never comes. We've tried tough love, but maybe we need to get tougher. He is ruining his life. Please, any suggestions you have might help. What did we do wrong? What can/should we do to get our son back? —Petrified Parents
Dear Petrified Parents,

Thank you for your question, which sounds like just about every parent’s nightmare—one that’s more common than you might think.

For me, the key to the answer is in your last two questions. You seem to assume that you did something “wrong,” leading to feelings of guilt, shame, anger (at yourselves or each other and/or your son), and say you want to get your son “back.” I assume you mean the way he was before he took on the appearance of a “rebel” from a bad 1950s movie.

He is still the kid you love, still good—just struggling with something beneath all of that strange and troubling behavior. I would hesitate to conclude he is definitely “ruining his life” because I would bet, in the larger context of his life, his behavior probably makes some sense. Most teens go through a rebellious phase, whose aim in part is to annoy or even frighten the living hell out of parents. So I wouldn’t take the bait completely. Of course this is very concerning and needs to be investigated, and consequences are crucial (provided they are communicated clearly and enforced consistently), but something tells me “tough love” or drawing a line in the sand may only alienate him. The trick is reaching to connect with the kid behind all this behavior (fighting, smoking) that also keeps his teenage need for individuation and autonomy in mind. Not the easiest relational dance by any means, which is why the teen years can be very difficult indeed, and why a good school counselor or family therapist can help.

Seeing this as a family problem, not his problem or your problem, is key. Drawing in teachers and school counselors is good, as is including the parents of the other “troublemakers” he runs with. Something is attracting him to this crowd; what is it?

And again, what was happening before? Was he a good student? Fortunately, this is all happening now more or less under your roof, which tells me this is in part a communication to you—a rebellious, perhaps angry communication at that. As if he’s saying, “I’m making my own rules, got it?” But what might be happening in the family dynamic such that he feels compelled to “say” and do these things? And why isn’t he fearful of consequences? The compulsion to do these things, which includes numbing or distancing from certain thoughts and feelings, means whatever feelings he’s pushing away and expressing via behavior are more powerful than the fear of going off track in school and developing “shady” friends.

Why might he identify with these friends, incidentally? Try to really put yourself in his shoes and forget black/white, right-and-wrong thinking. The harder you push for “the right side” of the line, the more he’ll likely stand on the other side and dig in. Welcome to the teen years. But keep in mind this may be the only way he knows how to express whatever is happening inside him, probably inexpressible.

Of course your concerns are understandable, given his behavior at school and his alarming drug/alcohol use. Yes, many teens experiment with booze and pot, but in this case 15 is pretty early for him to be using it in such a casual way (as opposed to sneaking a beer or joint with friends at a concert). Again, it’s as if he wants you to know about it, as it’s happening, right under your nose.

In some cases, children have tried to be “good” for so long that this goodness becomes a burden, often privately felt, leading to a swing in the opposite direction. Or there’s an anxiety or hurt that drugs and booze cover up. Could your son find some rebellious expression in arenas besides pot—such as music, drama, filmmaking, sports, etc.? Something assertively geeky or super cool where he can stand out and feel good about himself? Teens want to be cool and feel cool, in all ways, be it computer programming or punk rock. These other kids he hangs with make him feel cool, though I wonder why he has embraced this particular incarnation. Of course, many of our greatest innovators were rebels; the challenge is finding an outlet that is free from self-destruction and liberates/transcends rather than medicates the difficult emotions of adolescence. (It’s difficult for parents, too!) It’s likely that underneath all this tough-guy stuff is fear and/or anxiety. It sounds like you may be anxious also, which is why you need to be a role model of calm. Anxiety is contagious throughout a family “system.”

It’s good that he wants to feel cool and have friends; what’s not cool is that his current behavior will lead him nowhere positive in the long run.

Has your son demonstrated an interest in anything previously that might provide for his self-expression? Anything creative rather than destructive? Can you or a counselor or teacher help him find such a direction? Anything that can “hook” his interest can help him find a way back into engagement with school, such as a magnet school for music or technology, for instance. Volunteer work, too. Karate. Photography. Fly fishing. Think outside the box; offer him incentives for trying something new. Maybe his dad or grandpa or someone could even try doing it with him for the first time or two. I’d bet he has an untapped passion.

You and your husband ought to decide, first, what is and isn’t acceptable to you both. Make sure you’re both on the same page. The calmer you are in general, the safer he’ll feel bringing his troubles to you. I recommend tough love if and after the other ideas flop.

And now, consequences. I imagine you have leverage, since he’s 15 and, I’m presuming, approaching driving age. He’ll want driving lessons, need car insurance, and so on. Here’s where you get to be loving but firm parents and decide what is and isn’t acceptable. Anything less than a “B” average, for example, means no driving. Missing a curfew means no car (and possibly phone) for the next __ days. Drinking and driving means no car keys for the next __ months, minimum, and the loss of other privileges (social media, etc.).

You and your husband ought to decide, first, what is and isn’t acceptable to you both. Make sure you’re both on the same page. The calmer you are in general, the safer he’ll feel bringing his troubles to you. I recommend tough love if and after the other ideas flop.

Usually a child his age struggles with developmental challenges. He may not be completely comfortable talking to you about them, which isn’t your fault. Is there a school counselor or teacher who can get involved? What do these folks, probably seasoned observers of teens, think might be happening? What about the parents of his pals?

Does your son have an uncle or grandpa, some adult he trusts, who can spend some time with him and help him open up about what’s going on? Can they go to a movie or a ballgame? It takes a village, as they say, and parents are often the wrong messengers for the right message because of the rebellion factor. Also, children need to complain and gripe about their folks a bit; sometimes “delinquency” is a kind of grandiose, covered-up lament or expression of hurt feelings that they feel can’t be expressed any other way.

What do the parents of these “bad influences” have to say? The more communication among all of you, the better. You need to know where your son is, within reason, and to let him and his friends know that caring eyes are watching.

Also, what is your own attitude toward drinking and drug use (including pills)? That may have some bearing on your son, if you or your husband tip too far toward rigidity or looseness; at any rate, his drinking and smoking is a symptom of something deeper, but neither is helpful to his development if overdone.

It would be interesting to reflect upon how and when the “old version” of your son changed, and what may have been going on in the overall context of his life. We all change. But was there any big change? New neighborhood, new school, the loss of a girlfriend? If he is self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, why? What might be causing anxiety, worry, or other troublesome feelings? Is he worried about dating, college, becoming a man? I think it is important to remember he is still the boy you love, struggling as manhood fast approaches. It’s a confusing world, and teens are bombarded with all kinds of conflicting messages. Personal identity questions around freedom, autonomy, and self-expression are all being worked out, often awkwardly, as a new “family” of peers is developed. Again, the calmer you are—and the less your emotional security is dependent on his behavior—the better.

Also, what bothers you about this behavior? Are you concerned you or others will deem yourself a parental “failure”? Are you imagining the worst—i.e., he is headed for the penitentiary if this doesn’t stop yesterday? Are you already preparing the care package you’ll take to the visiting center, where he’ll be waiting in an orange jumpsuit? Try not to panic, as this may alienate him and scare him off. I know many productive, happy adults who went through a “dark period” in their teens. In fact, it’s better to get it out of the way now. He could also be testing you, to see how far he can go before losing (or not) your love of him. The trick as parents is loving the child without necessarily condoning certain behavior. Easier said than done. But he is and will always be your boy (even if he doesn’t express it that way). Often in the mid- to late twenties, there is a period of reconciliation where kids, now adults, realize how hard adult life really is.

Finally, the most important point of all, which may sound somewhat counterintuitive (but here goes): Take care of yourself. One thing parents forget, and I include myself here, is that we are most of all role models for our children, even when they act like we’re invisible (or annoying). Sometimes, our children will “counter-identify,” meaning they’ll take on the “reverse” identity of a parent, to distinguish themselves as different. Your son’s behavior is communicating something important to you, most likely unconsciously; it’s a good idea to try to “decode” what he’s trying to say. There’s no harm in some family therapy to seek some help in this.

Children often bridle at the implication that they are responsible for their parents’ emotional well-being. This only decreases and constrains the very freedom they’re itching to define. Of course parents get upset or angry or anxious when a child is in trouble—that’s normal—but I’m talking about something more profound, a core, existential sense of OK-ness. Parents who feel, consciously or not, that “my child’s ‘performance’ is a direct reflection of my own core worthiness” are setting themselves up for trouble.

I like the concept from recovery programs of “attraction, not promotion.” You want to provide an attraction to a peaceful sense of stability, calm, and strength which you personally embody. Not pounce and pick apart all of his behavior, which will only make him defensive and/or angry. In a way, you and his dad are the guardrails for safety, in deed and not just word. The guardrail needs to be flexible but not breakable, solid but not overly foreboding (or flimsy). Our children provoke our own need to grow and stretch as a person, and again there’s no shame in getting help. This might include therapy, Al-Anon, or a parents’ support group so you can learn from others—which would also be good role modeling for him. And any non-pressured family time, in whatever form (movies, ballgames, let him choose), will hopefully cultivate unity.

Finally, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has a page for parents on teens. There are other good resources for parents on the Internet also.

Thanks for writing, and warmest wishes to you and your family.

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Janey

    December 11th, 2015 at 10:14 AM

    While I do think that there are probably times for tough love to me it fells like he is too young for that. I would be too afraid that turning him out as such a young age could eventually have devastating consequences. I think that he probably needs a lot of comfort and help and support from you right now, and maybe you have to keep him away from these friends but I think that this could be a critical moment for him and to cut him off could be a bad mistake.

  • Mel

    December 11th, 2015 at 1:09 PM

    There is probably a time in every parent child relationship that there is time for tough love. Sometimes I think that the only way to get your point across is to be a little more forceful about your expectations and what the rules will be in your house. They may act like they are 25, but at heart this is still just a kid who is trying to push limits as far as he can.

  • Traz

    December 13th, 2015 at 3:29 PM

    I have been through a similar time with one of my children. For a year when he was 16-17. He’s now 19 and doing well. I was terrified. He wasn’t coping academically at school, even with tutoring. He wanted to and tried but had some learning problems that made it difficult. These issues got him down and he started to feel different to the “achievers”. Some friends started meeting in a park. One brought pot and a bong and passed it around. Ny son said it was fun, being with the guys. I found out because I saw him smoking it at his bedroom window!! I was so shaken, hurt, disappointed and worried.
    Over the next few months my husband and I were on a steep learning curve but determined to be there for our son and guide or push him through! We realised the pressure he was under was too much and that he wad struggling with confidence. Marijhuana made him feel relaxed abd gave him insight (according to him) and how do you deny that!
    We researched the real health concerns are the drug and sprnt lits of time discussing this. The risk of psychosis especially. We realised our son didnt want to harm himself and was motivated to stop experimenting when the truth of the information got through to him. Later he did try magic mushrooms though! I found them in his room. A friend shared them with him and others. We went through the same process.
    These boys are not rough or trouble. Just normal teenagers from good loving homes.
    Besides the talking and research about drugs, mental health and health, we also INCREASED our time with him wherever possible, seeing movies, travelling, having fun. This was not always easy, especially for me as I felt deeply hurt and like a failure. Since birth I’d tried hard to raise my children to do the right thing for themselves and others, to talk through problems, to avoid drugs and violence etc. I hadn’t realised how difficult life was for him or how pervasive drug use is amongst young people.
    I felt very anxious and turned to a psychologist for support. I only had three appointments but she helped me clear my mind, get back to sleeping better and start to understand thst I am not the cause of everything decision child, now a young adult, does. I felt incredibly violated also because he had been smoking pot in MY home, even while I was there and lying about the smell which he masked with very strong deodorant. I wondered how could my son be so dishonest when we had been such a close family? But, young people are at a stage where they really do lie to do what they want to do.
    I have since talked with a number of people who surprisingly confided about their children’s journey’s with drugs or alcohol and boy do I feel for them!! There is a sense of shock and shame also! My son only tried pot less than a dozen times and maguc mushrooms once. Some if these peoole’s kids have used ecstacy etc and gone down dark paths yet, perhaps through parental love, support, boundaries and persistence they are doing well now!
    In terms of tough love, we restricted all money to our son for over six months. We usually give a small allowance but that ceased until we felt comfortable to give it again. When we first gave it back he bought cigarettes so we ceased it again. I seached his room occasionally all found the various things banned from our house. It was tough to do this. I searched without warning. I searched his backpack too. I hate doing that but really feel when it comes to your young person’s safety it is a must! Only if you are suspicious. He did feel his autonomy was violated and we didn’t want him to feel that but he needed to know our boundary was firm: no drugs in our house and no using our money for drugs, alcohol or cigarettes.
    Show no anger to them, just a warm loving apologetic approach and then move on to engaging, living life together, listen to their music, watch their tv shows together.

  • Franklin

    December 14th, 2015 at 10:29 AM

    He is a teenage boy and I believe that the most important thing is to continue to let this child know that you love him.
    Yes he may be doing things in life that you will not approve of, I think that we have all probably done that when we were teens. But guess what? Most of us grow out of it and become respectable adults if we have love and encouragement from our parents.

    I think that the worst thing that you can do is to cut your lifeline to him. I am not saying that you have to financially support the bad behavior but it is nice for him to know that you are always going to be there through thick and thin.

  • lonna

    December 16th, 2015 at 2:38 PM

    I think that if you feel like you have done everything that you know to do to get his attention, then yes, it could be some time for that good old fashioned tough love

  • Ronald

    December 29th, 2015 at 2:49 PM

    This might just be the only language he will understand

  • Maret

    December 30th, 2015 at 5:12 PM

    I was raised on the concept of tough love… and I think that I turned out better because of it!

  • louis

    January 5th, 2016 at 10:54 AM

    It is your house and your rules. He would have to abide by that philosophy to stay with me.

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