By the time Karin York was 14, her parents knew trouble was brewing. Karin was frequently out all night; she had been in a number of car crashes in which the driver had been drunk, and the amount of clothes and equipment in her room made them suspect she was shop-lifting. They also feared she was on drugs.

Phyllis and David York, both counsellors, thought they knew what to do. They set off on the tried American route - the school and the therapist. 'We were told she was only a child. To sit back and relax,' says Phyllis, indignantly. The therapist recommended music lessons and skating, and judo to channel Karin's aggressions.

But back in the Yorks' increasingly embattled household, where Karin's two sisters were starting to drink to excess, the advice sounded like a bad joke. 'The kids were so wild that David and I just stayed upstairs in our bedroom. Thank God she didn't take up judo - she'd have killed us]'

They began to live almost separate lives until, at 18, Karin held up a cocaine dealer and was sent to jail. Finally, Phyllis and David turned. They would not speak to her or put up bail. They communicated only through friends. If Karin called, they hung up. 'We said, 'You got yourself into this, get yourself out of it'.'

Fifteen years on, Karin (not her real name as the Yorks will not identify which daughter it was), is married and, with her own children, can see the point of what then seemed hard-hearted rejection. It is a prime example of what Americans call 'tough love' - being cruel to be kind. Appallingly hard, says Phyllis, but it pulled both Karin and the family out of the destructive nose-dive on which they had seemed implacably embarked.

The Yorks realised they had learnt a lesson. Maybe, they thought, others could profit from it. So they set up a network of parents with similar concerns. When a piece in their local press was picked up nationally, 15,000 letters landed on their doorstep within two weeks. The organisation that started in the Yorks' front room went national. It was called Toughlove.

Today, Toughlove International covers the United States, with around 700 branches, a few of them spreading overseas (though none to Britain) and has clearly touched a nerve. It is used by thousands

of desperate parents every week, bringing in stories of children (81 per cent already in therapy) who take drugs, or steal, or exploit and manipulate their families - or combinations of all of those. In the Toughlove groups, they learn to fight fire with fire. It is, for many, the last chance.

For some, a warm family life is re-established. But it demands a lot. Parents must stop taking easy ways out; they must abandon false dreams; they must tackle parental guilt. Little wonder that half the parents who come to a Toughlove session do not come back a second time, says Phyllis York.

Toughlove in Manhattan, which meets every Thursday evening in a church hall, does not give the impression at first of such rigorous dramas. It is, on the surface, a sedate gathering, in a hall that conforms to a universal blueprint for institutionalisation: impersonal, bad acoustics, poor lighting, stacks of steel-and-canvas chairs.

But it is the setting for deep passions. There are 15 parents sitting in three circles, reporting back on the successes and failures of the previous week. It is not breast-beating stuff: they talk in low and rather drained voices on the progress of herculean struggles - rules applied, lies nailed. The people around them listen intently, nod and respond with sympathy.

'When I first went to a Toughlove session, I almost left straightaway,' Joan says later. 'The stories seemed so horrific, I thought, what am I doing here?'

Maybe the three new parents huddled in one corner being formally inducted into the Toughlove way are thinking that. Maybe they are too caught up in their own woe and confusion, sitting there - two black women and one Middle Eastern woman - hands twisted tightly in their laps.

'You are probably feeling some, if not all, of these emotions,' says the homely white-haired man guiding them into Toughlove thinking. 'Angry, alienated, sad . . .' he discreetly turns the pages of a small flip chart, ' . . . frustrated, betrayed, a failure, alone . . .'

But the attraction of Toughlove is precisely that parents are not alone. Here buried passions can be revealed and shared. This communality forms the bedrock for the programme. The groups have no professional leaders; they are self-run. Parents themselves take on the task of helping each other to identify and articulate the kind of change they want to engineer, and the interim steps - set and reviewed each week - by which they will try to achieve it. Between meetings, parents undertake to support each other day and night, to strengthen waverers, to act as surrogate homes for teenagers if necessary.

Frank, who is separated from his wife, has been accused by their daughter of sexually molesting her when on a visit to him. The group urges him not to agree to his daughter's request to go clothes-shopping with him. She's setting him up again, they warn. Another parent volunteers to take his place. The vigilance is incessant; little by little, they creep forward - they hope.

Toughlove is not a therapy. It does not depend on the realisation of insights into behaviour to effect change. 'By the time you get the insight,' says Phyllis York, 'the kid is dead.' It is crisis intervention and works by action, not analysis.

Joan talks about her 19-year-old son, who acted as a dictator in the home they share. Reasoning and imploring did not stop him from being self-centred, lazy and abusive. So she took his key away. 'My front door looked as if it had been hit by a bulldozer.' She called the police. Gradually the message got through that his mother had her demands: 'No more not controlling himself, no more mouthing off, no more breaking things, not attending to his duties round the house, not functioning as a human being.'

American parents are being undermined, Phyllis York feels. The Yorks believed they had created their own monsters and so lost the power to deal with them. 'We're a very parent-blaming society.' Toughlove instead urges parents to reject sole guilt. 'You are not a failure,' reads the white-haired man, 'your kid is a failure . . .' Manna, surely, to the ears of people in the habit of searching their own behaviour for the roots of their children's disturbance.

But Toughlove goes even further. Society, says Phyllis York, prefers to look for scapegoats rather than ask people to take responsibility for their actions. The Yorks cite cases - a young man up for burglary who said he had done it because his parents' marriage was in trouble; a young woman who had shop-lifted because of her 'low self-esteem'. 'Finding so-called reasons for behaviour has become a cop-out. Ultimately, you have to ask the question - who inhabits the human body and determines what it does? Who's minding the store?'

This moral sturdiness makes sense to Toughlove parents, disparate as they are. Indeed, it has something almost nostalgic about it, taking them back, in some cases, to their own struggling childhoods, when they did not resort to drinks or drugs as a consequence. It is back to moral values and self-discipline, before the word permissiveness broke out of the egg.

The manual places it on the line: 'When parents are earning the money, paying the rent or mortgage, buying the groceries, taking responsibility for keeping the household running smoothly and providing emotional support as well, a child has no right to claim authority over anything, not even his or her 'own' room. In truth, it's not his or her own room. It's the parents' room . . . Parents and kids are not equal.' As a clarion call to old values, it has proved remarkably attractive.

(Photograph omitted)