What happens when your little angel grows into a monster? For parents with out-of-control teenagers, life can be pure hell. Many admit to living in fear of their wayward offspring. Now one group is offering such parents a lifeline — but its answers are anything but easy.
A GROUP of parents sits in a circle in a school hall in one of Brisbane's outer suburbs on a sticky summer night. Some have come as couples, touching hands for reassurance, others arrive alone. The 14 range in age from their mid-30s to their late 50s and include an engineer, nurse, businessman, computer expert, butcher and student.
The regulars stride in, greeting each other like old friends. The newcomers hover nervously, embarrassed, ashamed.
All they have in common is the same tired look — eyes weary from too little sleep and too many tears.
This is ToughLove— a support group for parents who feel they have lost control of their children, their homes and, often, their lives.
Christine has forgotten to wear her ribbon tonight. But, she says, "it would have been a great big, bright red one". The rest of the group nod knowingly.
Members are encouraged to wear a ribbon to each meeting indicating the week they have had with their ToughLove kid. Green means good, yellow is so-so and red is awful.
Christine is here to find ways to stop her 16-year-old son, Philip, hurling abuse at his parents. Things had gone fine until Sunday night, when one of Philip's "verbal vomit" outbursts ended with him smashing a door and a TV set and being pinned to the ground by his father.
Sally has had a green-ribbon week. Her 15-year-old boy, who had been living away for five months, has decided to return home and stay at school. After a meeting with his parents and a Family Services case worker, he moved back in and so far, so good.
"He's meant to come home by 11pm and rang late last night to say he was staying out. I told him how disappointed I was that he had broken our agreement and when I got up to go to work this morning, there he was asleep in his bedroom," Sally says.
The others cheer. They are cheering Sally's success and the hope It provides that one day their own downward spiral will stop and they will get back the great kids they once shared their lives with.
Almost all have other, trouble-free offspring. These are caring parents who love their children—the group does not advocate physical or verbal abuse, or throwing kids out of home. But they are seeing their families and lives being destroyed by the behaviour of their offspring.
Disobedience, abuse, violence, punching and kicking holes in walls, stealing, disappearing, truancy, drugs.... the list goes on.
ToughLove is often the port of last resort after a long and fruitless search for help.
"I took my daughter to two psychiatrists, a GP, a psychologist and the mental health service before I found ToughLove and this is the only thing that's worked," says Norma.
But the group accepts it is not the answer for everyone, and is happy to refer people to other services.
While the group is careful not to criticise other services, some members say they feel disempowered by their experiences.
And that's what ToughLove is all about —empowering the parents and reminding them they have rights. The right to sleep undisturbed by worry over where their teenager is, or being woken by drunk or stoned children or calls from emergency services; the right to a clean home, co-operation and responsible behaviour from children; and the right to live without rude, abusive or violent behaviour from a child.
"We believe we cannot change anyone but ourselves," says ToughLove Queensland organiser Robyn Caldwell. "By changing what we do, we get a different response from our kids."
It's about making the youngsters face the consequences of their actions, instead of constantly rescuing them — making them pay their own fines, replace property they smash, reporting them to the police if they commit crimes.
"I firmly believe that people do not change unless they are feeling uncomfortable," Mrs Caldwell says. "So what we do is create controlled crises so that change can occur in a safe, loving environment. For example, if a kid is abusing the phone — we have parents with $600-a-month phone bills —put a PIN lock on it so the kid can't use it."
The group has a no-blame policy. "We are not counsellors or therapists. We don't work on history. What we do is crisis intervention," Mrs Caldwell explains.
THE "Tough" in the group's name relates to how hard parents find it to make changes — to say No, to set limits and enforce them.
"They are so frightened of what's going to happen. I think they're frightened of losing their kids."
The support of fellow members is crucial to the process. At each meeting, every member is assigned another parent as a supporter for the week.
Their role can be as basic as a phone call once during the week — but it can be much more. A child who is locking themselves in the bedroom, perhaps using drugs or ringing up huge phone bills, may come home to find two dads from the group have arrived, unscrewed the bedroom door from its hinges and taken it away in a ute.
For many parents, the discovery that other families are going through the same anguish is a huge help. And, if it becomes impossible for parent and child to live in the same house, longer-term members with a more settled home environment are encouraged to accommodate the youngsters for a while.
ToughLove's Queensland office received 445 calls last year — the tip of an enormous iceberg, they believe.
Non-profit and manned entirely by volunteers, the group and its work is not widely known.There are four groups in the state —all in and around Brisbane — but they want to establish one in every town.
"Many parents are very traumatised," Mrs Caldwell says. "I will often pick up the phone (to first-time callers) and they are crying. They have run out of choices, they have been abused by their children for years. They have suffered awful frustration.
"It rips a family apart —absolutely. It rips the parents' relationship apart as they blame each other and argue over what to do and it seriously harms other children in the family."
The children are getting younger — and older.
"Once it was 14- and 15-year-olds, now it's 11-year-olds and even down to 8- and 9-year-olds." Mrs Caldwell says. "We're also getting calls from parents of people in their 20s and even 30s who just will not grow up."
The common thread is drug use, particularly marijuana.
"Of the kids whose parents come through ToughLove, 85 to 90 per cent have some fairly substantial involvement in drugs," says Mary, a trainer with one of the groups.
From drug use flow all the other problems — mood swings, anti-social behaviour, stealing and often drug dealing.
"The problem is that parenting cannot get through the barrier that drugs create," Mary says.
Parents are often in denial for years about their children's behaviour, she says.
"We tell ourselves they are going through a stage and they will snap out of it. We are denying the power in ourselves to do anything about it.
Mary believes her 13-year-old son was using quite a lot of marijuana for nine months before she came to the realisation.
"I thought he was this nice, clean-cut little boy going off on the school bus to the safety of his school and coming home to us at the end of the day. In fact, he was getting to school early, going down the back and getting stoned before school.
As time went on, I could smell the dope in my own home. That's when the horns grew and smoke came out of my ears."
She tried to discuss the issue rationally but met constant denials. So one day, she followed her boy to school and caught him in the act.
Schools, she says, are afraid of facing the problem — frightened of parental confrontation, of legal action, of possible damage to their reputations. So they ignore it until it becomes unmanageable, and then expel the teenager.
The child simply falls in with the drug-using group at the next school. After being expelled again, they start refusing to go to school and the spiral continues.
"It's hell on Earth. It's living your worst nightmare," Mary says. "Every time they don't come home or while they are living away and the phone rings you wonder if it's the police calling because he's been beaten up for not paying his drug debts, or if it's because he's in the back of an ambulance with an overdose.
When I came to ToughLove, I was at the point where either he had to go or I did but he was only 14 at the time. I didn't want to be a parent who put their child on the streets at 14."