Wednesday, 5 November 2014

"If you don't give me alcohol to take to a party, I'll get my own and drink in a park!": How should parents respond to emotional blackmail?

Twice this week I have been contacted by parents who have been told by their teens that they are too strict as far as alcohol and parties are concerned and that if the rules don't change they will 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 was to go wrong. I meet parents who find themselves in this position all the time, but I think as we move closer to the summer months and the growing number of parties and gatherings that adolescents start to be invited to, particularly over the upcoming school holidays, this type of emotional blackmail really starts to raise its ugly head! It's typically Year 10s (but I'm hearing similar murmurs from parents of Year 9s) and these clever teens are all trying their best to manipulate their poor parents by threatening them with 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 to them.

Here is an email I recently received from a mother who is grappling with this issue (I have made a few changes to make sure she is not identified and I have added a couple of sentences reflecting some of the concerns from the other parent I spoke to this week) ...

"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 have always picked him up from the parties and never smelt any alcohol on him ... Last weekend my son said to me that his friend has told his parents that he had been drinking and they said they want him to come to them if he gets himself into trouble. Our son said that he wouldn’t be able to come to us because we are so strict and inflexible and won't allow him to drink and he knows that there will be consequences should we catch him drinking. Now I am 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 always get them to answer a number of questions as honestly as they can - once they have they usually are able to work out what to do next ...
  • What exactly is your child asking you for? In the situation above the young man sounds like he is asking for a couple of things - he is certainly asking for more flexibility around the 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 years of age? 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 - not that you 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? I always say in my presentations to parents that really the only reason you ever have to give to your child is "because I love you!", but really that's the answer you give when they don't like the rules you've laid out and you don't want to enter into a screaming match with them! When you are 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 for some parents - 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 have 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 would 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 are threatening? Look, when it comes down to it the kids that are going to get into real trouble are certainly not usually going to ask their parents for permission to do any of this stuff - 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 (you've been an authoritative parent - rules, consequences bound in unconditional love), 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 are being inflexible and not listening to your teen's concerns things could go pear-shaped - but as I said before, that 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. I have told the following story before in a previous blog entry but it's worth repeating - 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 all of the parties she attended alcohol was at the very least tolerated and sometimes even provided. She also told her mother that she believed that 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 did not 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 alcohol was not provided then she would 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 had not spoken to any of her daughter's friends' parents. She had not called one parent who had hosted a party her daughter had attended. Every bit of information she was using to make decisions was based on what her daughter told her. This 15 year old had successfully 'siloed' her mother, ensuring that she spoke to no-one and found out nothing about what was really going on - she was feeding her the information she wanted her to hear. To top it off, she then threatened (there is no other word for it) her mother and told her that their 'wonderful' relationship would be jeopardised if she didn't get want she wanted. As I said to the mother at the time, this is not a positive relationship and some work needed to be done pretty quickly to fix it before it gets completely out of control.
I'm pretty sure we all used emotional blackmail to get what we wanted from our parents when we were teenagers (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 would be totally ostracised from my entire year group if I didn't have them - the fear of social exclusion works wonder with parents!). 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 when their child resorts to this type of manipulation but the bottom line for me is always - whatever the decision, make sure you follow your heart and ensure you can live with the consequences should something go wrong. I have met too many parents who were bullied into making decisions and changing rules that they were not comfortable with and then either losing their child in tragic circumstances or finding themselves with a 15 year-old daughter who had been sexually assaulted or being called to a hospital after their 16 year-old son 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!

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