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Dealing With the Blackmailer in the Basement

It happens several times a month. A worried set of parents hauls a sullen adolescent (usually a boy) to my office because of concern about falling grades, nasty attitude and substance abuse. The substance is usually marijuana and in many of these households a wacky compromise has been forged; though the parents object to pot use they permit their child to use pot at home under the theory it is better to have the kid at home doing risky behavior than out in the community using where they might get hurt, or arrested.

Now I want to be clear, for many clinical reasons, I consider marijuana to be a powerful, risky drug; especially when added to the quickening adolescent brain. If you are the kind of parent to whom that seems like nonsense save your time and skip the rest of this column.

I’m always confused when parents who look the other way with their child’s drug abuse bring their child to my office. After all, if parents are willing to condone a double message drug use what are they expecting a counselor to do? Why be upset when all the highly predictable emotional, social and academic side effects of pot use are on florid display in their child?

Ultimately, the question comes down to who will be in charge of the house – kids or parents. If parents tolerate illegal, dangerous behavior in the home then the teen is in charge of the house – and the kid knows it.

Some parents bend to the adolescent blackmail because, “If you don’t let me use at home I’ll just go somewhere else and use and then if I get arrested or hurt it will be your fault.”

Even though any fan of film noir well knows you never give in to blackmail, you’d be surprised how many loving, well-intentioned parents fall for such bullying and put up with a kid smoking pot out in the garage, basement, barn or bedroom. I’ve known moms who tuck clean, folded underwear around drug paraphernalia in their kid’s dresser drawer.

While physically they may appear adult, adolescents are actually near-adults, with “near” being the operative word. And pot smoking teens lag behind normal psycho-social development. That is why, ultimately, parents need to be in charge of the home. Frequently, saying no to a demanding or distraught teen is all it takes to establish loving control of the home.

Saying no to adolescent blackmail is essential. If a teen chooses to take negative behavior into the community they have earned the consequence and will have to deal any fallout.

A good initial response to teen drug use is to point out that as long as a teen manages to budget for pot or alcohol there’s no parental subsidization of new electronics, cars, CDs, concerts, clothing beyond K-Mart basics, car insurance or gas.

It is rare to see substance abuse get better left alone. The effects of drug use are cumulative. Too often kids don’t outgrow their substance abuse. Physical tolerance builds, social, educational and mood problems gather. If drug use continues despite expression of parental concern and limit setting, in-home consequences and offers of support and even treatment it may, indeed, be time for legal intervention. When it comes to substance abuse, motivation for change must often come externally, in the form of cops, judges, social workers and probation.

Bottom line, parents, double standards of convenience inevitably lead to greater problems. Saying no to adolescent blackmail is an essential parental skill.

Mark L. Taylor MA LPC SAC is a Wisconsin licensed counselor who works extensively with adolescents and their families. He also founded the RoundRiver Institute LLC, a learning center near Genoa, WI. Permission is granted for personal use of this material. If you pass it on to other individuals please include a link back to this page. If you wish to use it in a newsletter or publication please contact Mark at:

© Mark L. Taylor and RoundRiver Institute LLC