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How should parents respond to ’emotional blackmail’?

According to the latest secondary school student data, parents continue to be the most common source of alcohol amongst young people, with 37.9% of current drinkers aged 12-17 years reporting this to be the case. Friends (22%) and ‘someone else’ (19%) were the next most likely responses, with siblings (8.7%) and ‘took it from home’ (4.7%) being the least likely sources.

What you do with your teen around drinking is completely your business and if you believe that providing them with alcohol is the right thing to do, whatever your reason, then all power to you. There are many parents who believe that giving their child a glass of alcohol with a meal in a family environment is the best way to teach ‘responsible drinking’. The available evidence in this area does not necessarily support that view, but if that’s what you believe and it feels right for your family – go for it. When it comes to giving a teen alcohol to take to a party on a Saturday night I believe there are far fewer parents who actually feel comfortable doing this, regardless, many still do. Once again, it’s your choice what you do here. As long as you don’t impose your beliefs onto other parents or criticize other families for having different values in this area, it’s you who has to live with your decision and only you can judge whether your teen is able to handle adult behaviour like drinking in social settings. So why do so many parents who don’t feel comfortable giving their teen a couple of drinks to take to a party end up actually doing it? I believe, in many cases, it’s simply a matter of ’emotional blackmail’.

I’m constantly meeting parents who’ve been told by their teens that they’re too strict as far as alcohol and parties are concerned. If the rules don’t change they’ll go behind their backs and find alcohol themselves and go and drink it in a dangerous place like a park, or that their inflexibility will result in them not going to them if something goes wrong. Unfortunately, as we move closer to the summer months this type of emotional blackmail really starts to raise its ugly head. It’s typically Year 10s (but I’m hearing it more and more from parents of Year 9s) that have this down to an art, doing their best to manipulate their poor parents by threatening them with all the terrible things that could happen to them if they don’t get what they want, i.e., permission to drink and/or for their parents to provide the alcohol.

I’ve shared the following message before but it’s certainly worth re-visiting. It’s from a mother who was grappling with this exact issue –“Our son has been to parties where 15- and 16-year-olds were drinking. He always told us that he didn’t drink and that he keeps an eye on his friends. We’ve always picked him up from parties and never smelt any alcohol on him. Last weekend he told me that his friend has told his parents that he’d been drinking and they said they wanted him to come to them if he gets himself into trouble. Our son said that he wouldn’t be able to come to us in that way because we’re so strict and inflexible and won’t allow him to drink and he knows there’ll be consequences should we catch him drinking. Now I’m at a complete loss how to respond to this because we certainly want him to know that he can come to us with problems but how can we uphold our rules without him totally rebelling?”

When a parent finds themselves in this situation I suggest they try to answer the following questions as honestly as they can. Once they have, they’re usually able to work out what to do next …

  • What exactly is your child asking you for? The young man above is asking for a couple of things – he’s certainly asking for more flexibility around rules around alcohol and parties and is most probably asking for permission to drink when he attends these events
  • Do you feel comfortable with allowing that to happen? This is where you have to ‘follow your heart’. Do you feel ok with easing the rules a little around parties and do you feel comfortable with giving him permission to drink alcohol at 16? No-one can answer that question but you and your partner – no-one
  • If you don’t feel comfortable, why not? This is incredibly important to think through and actually be able to articulate clearly. It really doesn’t matter what the reasons are, as long as you have them clearly laid out (maybe even written down) and you can explain them to others (not just your child) should you be asked. You don’t have to justify your parenting decisions to others, but it’s always useful to have them on hand, just in case
  • Have you explained your reasons clearly to your child? When you’re explaining the rules you certainly should be making it very clear why you’ve made the rules you have – simply saying “because I said so …” is just not going to cut it!
  • Are you being inflexible? This is a really difficult one – a 15- or 16-year-old is growing up and there does need to be some flexibility with rules. That doesn’t mean you cave-in and give them what they want, basically you start to reward good behaviour. If they’ve been going to parties regularly for 12 months and things have been going well, sit down with them and say something like … “You’ve been wonderful. We’re so proud of the way you’ve been behaving at parties, it’s time to take another look at our rules”. This is where curfews come in so handy, give them an extra 30 mins before you pick them up from a party. Never be frightened of asking them what changes they’d like to the rules and see which of those you’re happy to go with
  • Most importantly, do you really believe that your child would actually do what they’re threatening? Realistically, teens that are going to get into real trouble here are not the ones who are going to ask their parents for permission to do this – they’ll just go and do it behind their backs. If they’re talking to you and asking for rule changes, that can be a really good sign. Don’t ever believe that all that great work you’ve done over the past 15 or so years with your child is now worthless. If you have a positive relationship with your child, that’s not going to change because of something like this. They may not like you very much but they’ll still love you. However, if you’re being inflexible and not listening to your teen’s concerns things could go pear-shaped – this doesn’t mean you give them what they want, it just means you may have to do a better job of explaining your actions

Always remember that the one thing that most adolescents are brilliant at is the art of manipulation. Once again, I’ve told the following story before – it’s about a mother who was being manipulated by her 15-year-old daughter to such an extent that it was almost abuse …

The mother wanted my advice regarding her daughter, parties and the provision of alcohol. Her daughter had told her that all her friends drank alcohol, their parents provided this without question and that alcohol was at the very least tolerated and sometimes even provided at all the parties she attended. She also told her mother that she believed they had a great relationship – she could tell her everything and she did, nothing was kept hidden, unlike other girls and their mothers she knew. Unfortunately for the girl, her mother didn’t feel comfortable about giving her alcohol to take to these parties and this was causing heated discussion at home. The daughter then informed the mother that if she didn’t provide alcohol she’d have to resort to finding it elsewhere and going behind her back. This, she threatened, would mean the end of their ‘open’ relationship.

When questioned the mother hadn’t spoken to any of her daughter’s friends’ parents. She hadn’t called one parent who’d hosted a party her daughter had attended. Every bit of information she was using to make her decisions was based on what her daughter told her. This 15-year-old had successfully ‘siloed’ her mother, ensuring she spoke to no-one and found out nothing about what was really going on. She was simply feeding her the information she wanted her to hear. To top it off, she then threatened her mother and let her know that their ‘wonderful’ relationship would be jeopardized if she didn’t get want she wanted. This was not a positive relationship and some work needed to be done pretty quickly to fix it before it got completely out of control.

We all used emotional blackmail to get what we wanted from our parents when we were teens (my mother still goes on at me about the grey Levi jeans that I had to have when I was 15 and how I told her that I’d be totally ostracized if I didn’t have them). Today’s teens are no different and, like us, they certainly know how to pull at Mum’s or Dad’s heartstrings.

Every parent has to make their own decision on how to move forward should their child resort to this type of manipulation but the bottom line is always – whatever the decision, make sure you follow your heart and ensure you can live with the consequences should something go wrong. I’ve met too many parents who’d been bullied into making decisions that they weren’t comfortable with and then either losing their child in tragic circumstances or being called to a hospital after their child had been admitted due to alcohol poisoning. No matter what anyone tells you, giving them permission to drink or providing them the alcohol does not protect them from things going wrong.

Published: September 2017

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