Who do teens believe is the 'weakest link'? Which of their parents is more likely to say 'yes'?

At my parent sessions, when I talk about how easily teens are able to identify the 'weakest link', as far parenting is concerned, 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! Not surprisingly, most parents are well aware who the 'weakest link' is in their family, i.e., the one that their child is more likely to go to in an attempt to get what they want, particularly in relation to alcohol and parties ... but what do young people think about this phenomenon and how are they most likely to use it to their advantage?

Once again, I'm going to be using the results of the questionnaire that I conducted through the year to look at this fascinating area. Of the more than 500 Year 10s and 11s who completed the brief survey, did they think it was their Mum or their Dad who was more likely to 'cave-in' and was their a gender preference, i.e., were daughters more likely to go to their Dads to get what they wanted? Once again, I don't think there are any real surprises when you look at the findings but it really is interesting to read some of the comments from these young people around this issue and, once again, see how cleverly they can manipulate their parents when it comes to getting what they want ...

The questions that were asked 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?"

Of the more than 300 responses (the questionnaire changed over time and so this question was not always included), 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. So here is a brief summary of what the young people reported:
  • The majority (68%) of Year 10 and 11 students (male and female) believed that their Mum was more likely to say "yes" when asked if they could go to a party. There was no difference across the 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 10 and 11 students reported that Mum was more likely to say "yes" if they asked if they could drink alcohol at a party. There was a big 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
Few students provided a written comment for this question but here are a selection of some of their responses that provide some 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)
  • "I don't ask either of them. I know both will say no" (Year 11 female)
When you looked at just those teens who reported that they did not drink alcohol, however, something really interesting popped up. I only provided two responses for the student to choose from for each of the question - Mum or Dad. For the question about parties some of those who completed the survey decided to tick both boxes (even though that wasn't an option), indicating that they felt that either of their parents could be approached in this area. Only a couple responded in a similar way for the question around alcohol (i.e., marking both boxes), however, of those young people who reported that they did not drink, almost one quarter of them indicated that neither of them would give permission. Does this mean that if your child knows that you won't give permission for them to drink alcohol then they are more inclined to make a healthier choice? That's certainly what the literature says and it seems to be the case here but this survey is certainly not scientific and you can't draw too many conclusions from it - but I think it's really interesting ...

I also think it's fascinating that as they get older young men are more likely to ask their fathers for alcohol. Could it be, as the young man commented above, that their sons are more likely to approach them from the 'hypocrisy' angle (an old favourite with teens) and try the line "I'm just doing what you did" and hope for a positive response? Or is it that they're simply trying it from a 'mateship' perspective, i.e., "Come on Dad, that's just what we young Aussie guys do!"

So how do you solve the 'weakest link' issue? Teens are experts at identifying which parent is more likely to give them what they want, isolate or 'silo' them, set one up against the other (e.g., "But Dad said I could if you said it was alright") and then bombard them until they get the answer they were after. It's never going to be easy but I suggest the following strategy to parents to prevent being set-up in this way around alcohol and parties:
  • Most importantly, there must be a 'united front' - you and your partner must be on the same page on this issue. This can be particularly difficult for split families but if you agree on nothing else, try to come to a compromise on this ... and decide on where you stand before you have any discussion with your teen. 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 meet each other halfway and always remember, it's about keeping your child safe, not being their best friend!
  • Sit down with your teen and tell them that you don't make any decision in this area and your partner doesn't make any decision - 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 ...
  • This is not going to work unless a specific time is designated each week or couple of days to allow your teen to ask both of you for permission and discuss their requests. If you tell them they have to ask both of you, it is imperative that you give them a time when they are able to do this - if you can't find this time don't even attempt this as you're simply not being fair and you'll just get a lot of resentment and anger
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 (if you know of any, please let me know). 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.


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