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Parents and the ‘weakest link’: 4 tips to help prevent being ‘set-up’ around alcohol and parties

It would be extremely rare to find a household across the country where one of the parents did not self-identify as the ‘weakest link’, i.e., the one that their child (or children) is more likely to go to in an attempt to get what they want. You can almost guarantee that when I raise this issue at a Parent Information Evening, there are usually one of two responses from the couples in the room. Either one of them turns and stares accusingly, whilst the other tries as hard as they can to keep looking forward hoping it will all end quickly, or you simply see a room full of grown men and women swinging around to each other pointing fingers furiously.

I’ve raised this issue before but I was recently talking to a young woman who was having her 17th birthday in a couple of weeks and she wanted my advice on how she could best keep her and her friends as safe as possible. The whole event sounded terrifying (i.e., 300 guests, alcohol provided (but no spirits supposedly but she thought people would bring their own!), details shared on social media, etc) and when I asked her how her parents had felt about putting on such a night she replied “Mum keeps trying to limit things but I just ask Dad and I know that he’ll let me have whatever I want!” She certainly knew who the weakest link was in her family and had exploited it brilliantly …

I wrote about this issue a couple of years ago after conducting a questionnaire with more than 500 Year 10 and 11 students. One thing I wanted to look at was which of their parents did teens believe was more likely to ‘cave-in’ and was there a gender preference, e.g., were daughters more likely to go to their Dads to get what they wanted? I don’t think there were any real surprises when it came to the results but it was interesting to read some of the young people’s comments and, once again, note how cleverly teens manipulate parents when it comes to getting what they want.

The questions that were asked in this area were as follows:

“Who is more likely to say “yes” if you asked them if you could go to a party – Mum or Dad?”
“Who is more likely to say “yes” if you ask for permission to drink alcohol at a party or gathering – Mum or Dad?”

According to the survey results (and let me stress this is not a scientifically rigorous study), it’s official – sorry Mums, you are the weakest link! It must be said though that that it was pretty close and there were some interesting age and gender differences. Mums came out on top for both questions, although it was much closer as far as the provision of alcohol was concerned, with Dads increasingly being seen as the ‘easy touch’ as far as the Year 11 young men were concerned. Here is a brief summary of the results:

  • the majority (68%) of Year 10 and 11 students (male and female) believed Mum was more likely to say ‘yes’ when asked if they could go to a party. There was no difference across year groups but slightly higher numbers of young females were more likely to report that their mother would say ‘yes’ than their male counterparts
  • just over half (55%) of Year 10s and 11s reported that Mum was more likely to say ‘yes’ if they asked if they could drink alcohol at a party. There was a greater gender difference as they got older, however, with 68% of Year 11 boys and only 48% of Year 11 girls more likely to ask Dad, with the numbers being much closer for the Year 10s

Only a few students provided written comments for this question but here are some of the responses that provide a little insight on why they chose the parent they did:

  • “Mum trusts me more than my Dad and she also knows more of my friends so I know she’ll say yes when I ask about a party” (Year 10 female)
  • “Mum can’t say no to me about anything” (Year 10 female)
  • “Dad always lets me do what I want in the end” (Year 11 female)
  • “I know that my Dad was drinking and going to parties at my age and so I always ask him. Mum will say no but my Dad can always make her change her mind” (Year 11 male)

So how do you solve the ‘weakest link’ issue? It’s certainly not a new issue – teens have always been experts at identifying which parent is more likely to give them what they want, isolating or ‘siloing’ them, setting one up against the other (e.g., “But Dad said I could if you said it was alright”) and then bombarding them until they get the answer they were after. It’s never going to be easy but here are four tips for parents to help prevent being set-up in this way around alcohol and parties:

  • most importantly, make a decision on where you both stand on this issue. Take the time to sit down and discuss your views and concerns. No matter what the family situation you’re never going to get both parents completely on the same page in this area but do your best to find a compromise and meet each other halfway. Remember, it’s about keeping your child safe, not being their best friend!
  • based on that decision, demonstrate a ‘united front’ and stick to the ‘approved line’ at all times. Most importantly, never weaken your resolve in front of your child, no matter what they throw at you – they’ll see that ‘chink in your armour’ and work it for all it’s worth! If you are buckling, for whatever reason, discuss your concerns when your teen is not around. This whole area can be particularly difficult for split families but if you agree on nothing else, try to come to some sort of understanding on this topic
  • if they approach you with a request and you’re not with your partner, your mantra should be “Don’t come to me, don’t go to them – come to us!” They need to know that you don’t make any decision in this area and neither does your partner. Any decision made around alcohol and parties will be made by both of you. It must be made clear that coming to one of you and asking for something is not going to work – both of you, in consultation with your child, have to be involved in the decision-making process, no matter how urgent the request is …
  • allocate a time each week to allow your teen to ask both of you for your permission to attend events. If you tell them they have to ask both of you, it’s imperative that you give them a time when they’re able to do this. If you’re unable to find a time when both of you are available to hear your teen’s requests, don’t even attempt this as you’re simply not being fair and all you’ll get is a lot of frustration, resentment and anger. In my experience, for this to work successfully, it’s best to do this in the early evening (Thursday nights are the best), talk over a table or a kitchen bench and ensure you’re not going to be interrupted by electronic devices. It shouldn’t take any longer than about 15 minutes and, in that time, all requests are aired, you can’t be set-up against one another, and decisions can be made for the weekend ahead

Whoever the weakest link in your family is (and if it’s you, you know who you are!), they need support from their partner. I’ve looked everywhere for scientific research in this area and have been unsuccessful. As already said, a united front in the area of alcohol and parties is crucial during the teen years and having one parent who simply can’t say ‘no’, for whatever reason, is going to be problematic. Clearly stating that any decision in this area is never going to be made by one of you, no matter what the circumstances may be and then following through with this to the best of your ability will ensure that you and your partner make good, well thought through decisions about your teen’s safety.

Published: August 2019

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