Common emotional blackmail

From the archives: The original post was posted on 6th April, 1995

I have just watched what many readers will think is an example of junk television: the American television programme, The Ricki Lake Show, which we have started getting here in England. The theme was about teenagers who wish to divorce their parents, so I watched most of it with more attention than I might usually.

Why did these teenagers want emancipation? This seemed alarming and inexplicable to Ricki and the audience, who vacillated between taking the usual view – that children should respect their parents, stay in school, and abide by their parents’ rules while they are in the parental home – and moments of sympathy for the child.

The most serious case involved a girl who had run away from home countless times, and was now living with her possibly abusive, alcoholic, criminal boyfriend, supporting herself with two jobs. The parents barely acknowledged her presence, and it was clear even to Ricki and the audience that the girl had cause to want not to be with them. She said over and over again that they were not there for her, and all her mother could say in response was that she had given her lots of things, offered to take her skiing, and offered to take her somewhere else. Ricki and one of the audience participants pointed out that what the girl was saying was that she wanted, and was not getting, love – a relationship with them.

But then the father said his piece: that while the girl was living under their roof, she must obey their rules; and he then went on to complain that the girl disobeyed his instructions time and again. Unfortunately Ricki seemed to think this a very good argument, because she repeated it several times during the rest of the show, not appearing to see that here were teenagers taking their parents at their word, and choosing not to live with them.

The sorts of things the parents were saying are, I think you’ll agree, the sorts of things most parents say, but in most families, the children do not run away. Ricki and the audience seemed to find it alarming and puzzling that these children were seeking emancipation, and Ricki seemed to be searching for the answer to the question of why? Why do other children not choose to run away, even though their parents are saying the same awful things to them?

Well to start with, what do parents mean when they say things like “If you wish to remain in my house, you’ll abide by my rules, or get out”? What is really going on there? I suggest that the power of such statements lies in the relationship between the parent and child, and that what the child fears is not being out on the streets unable to feed himself – he can get financial, material support from any old children’s home or foster home. No. What the parent is actually threatening the child with is the loss of the relationship. The parent has led the child to believe that there is a relationship between them; and now is using that relationship as leverage to control the child. This common behaviour is, I suggest, pure emotional blackmail of the most execrable kind.

Most children value the relationship with their parents so much that when their parents blackmail them in this way, they accept the lesser of the two evils: they prefer to remain with their parents and submit to their rules rather than lose the relationship. If parents say these sorts of things to their children but are not offering a valuable relationship to the child, there is little or no leverage, and so the children choose to leave. That seems to me what was happening in the cases on the Ricki Lake Show, but no one on the show appeared to get it.

Threatening to withdraw love (the relationship) from a child is unspeakably immoral, and is in my view a gross breach of implicit contract between parent and child.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Common emotional blackmail’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/common-emotional-blackmail/