Blame Parents with a Code Word

Blame Parents: The Code Word Strategy

When I was growing up and worried about getting out of an uncomfortable social situation, my mother would say, “Just blame me! Tell them your mother said, ‘No!’” (Hopefully my junior high school friends aren’t reading this. Just between us, it got me out of some trouble.) But to blame parents, that was a potential game-changer.

Tweens and teens usually know when they’re headed into a challenging situation. And, they generally want to do the right thing. In the perfect world … we wish that they’d have the ability to handle everything. That they wouldn’t give in to negative peer influence. That they’d proudly state, “I disagree. I won’t do it” or, “This makes me uncomfortable.” But our wishes are not always rooted in reality.

It is hard for adolescents to make good choices when their decisions don’t play out well in teen culture. One of the big developmental questions that drives teen behavior is “Do I fit in?” Even young people with strong morals and steady temperaments may have moments where they’ll find it hard to make choices they think will prevent them from fitting in. Also, all people in difficult moments (but particularly adolescents) don’t think clearly. This makes it that much more important to have a practiced and prepared “get-out-of-trouble-card” that is easy to draw from the deck. To blame parents for getting in the way of fun is tried and true in tween and teen culture — meaning they can draw this card and still fit in.

Even young people with strong morals and steady temperaments may have moments where they’ll find it hard to make choices they think will prevent them from fitting in.

Code Words

Code words allow young people to signal to their parents that they want to get out of an uncomfortable, or even dangerous situation without peers knowing. To get started, your family chooses a code word (or phrase) that your teen can use in a tight spot. The word should never be shared with their friends. Otherwise, it’s useless. And just as we know “1234” or our birthdays are not secure codes for our bank accounts, we need to be thoughtful about choosing words that are secure, memorable, and user-friendly. Choose one that can be slipped into a sentence or text in a way that will be noticeable but not obvious.

Poor Choices:

  • Blumquot1#@%
  • HELP!!!
  • Rutabaga

Good Choices:

  • Dad, I think I left the door unlocked.
  • Sorry! Mom, you said Aunt Sheila was coming over tonight, but I’m out with friends, can I see her tomorrow?
  • I won’t be home to walk Spotty tonight? Can you take him out?

Here’s how it works:

  1. Teen tells friends that he/she has to call or text home and complains the whole time. “My parents are so annoying. I have to check in with them or they’ll freak out.”
  2. Teen makes the call or shoots the text in front of friends so they can clearly hear the end of the conversation, or see the phone.
  3. Parent notices the code word or phrase and says the teen has to come home.
  4. If it is easy for the teen to get home, the teen leaves while complaining about unreasonable parents.
  5. If the teen can’t get home easily, he/she argues. “What do you mean, I have to come home? That’s so unfair!”
  6. Parent sees that teen must have no obvious way home, and elevates suggestion to a demand. “Where are you?! Please be outside in a few minutes. I’m coming to pick you up!”
  7. Parent arrives and tells teen (out of sight and sound from peers) how proud they are that teen asked for help. “I’m proud of you for using our code word. I’m glad you’re safe. I’m happy to take your friends home too if they want to leave.”

Blame parents and use a code word — now your teen has saved face and done the right thing. Make sure you offer praise for making a level-headed decision and not punishment for being in the challenging situation in the first place. If you punish your teens, you can be pretty sure they will never use this strategy again. Be grateful your teen has mastered this skill and stayed safe while saving face with friends. Depending on your word choice, you may want to create a new one so the code is not cracked.

A Potentially Life-Saving Contract

A code word can be used in a variety of situations ranging from true danger in a peer setting (substance use, shoplifting, sexual pressure, a party getting out of hand) to social discomfort.  You may even find it useful in helping shy youngsters test their limits. They can try going to your office party knowing they can get home by dropping you a signal. They can more confidently go to a sleepover knowing they can always choose to come home early if they get uncomfortable.

The code word is a valuable addition to the Contract for Life promoted by Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). In that contract, young people promise to call home for a safe ride if any situation, including drugs or alcohol, might decrease the driver’s focus. This contract applies whether teens are worried about a friend who is driving or are unable to drive themselves. Young people trust the contract because it assures they will be protected rather than punished. In the perfect world, teens would easily turn to the contract because they value safety and trust their parents. But that is a chance not worth taking. It may not be easy to turn to friends and say “Guys, I have a contract with my mom.” A code word added to the contract makes it more realistic.

Blame Parents!

Young people don’t need to always escape a situation. Much more frequently they’ll be able to just state that they won’t do something. Ideally, they’ll just say “No, I don’t want to.” But if that feels tough, they can shift the blame to you.

We want to build skill-sets in our teens that support them when they want to avoid or stop negative behaviors among their peer group. The only strategies that will work are those that allow them to reject undesired behaviors without costing them friendships. Shifting the blame to their “overbearing” parents does just that.

It can be a good thing for our teen’s friends to know that we monitor them closely, even that we are strict when safety is at stake. This enables them to say, “Are you kidding me! You know what my parents will do if I get caught cutting school!” This works for any behavior they want to avoid, especially when it’s coupled with a severe consequence that their friends can relate to.

The examples are endless:

  • “My parents will ground me for a month if I don’t get home on time.”
  • “My parents drive me crazy. They always call to make sure there’s an adult around.”
  • “My grandmother would never let me out of the house wearing that.”
  • “My parents are good people. But after what happened to my cousin, they literally have zero tolerance for drugs.”

And this strategy doesn’t have to be limited to the family:

  • “I have asthma and my doctor says I could end up in the hospital if I smoke.”
Are You Effectively Keeping Tabs on Your Teen?
Monitoring teens is a balancing act. Take this quiz to determine if you’re doing it successfully.

Blame ALL the Parents

So much of what drives teen behavior is the need to be “normal” — to “fit in”.  When your rules are more demanding than those of other parents, your teen is going to have a tough time following them. But, when you get together with other parents and determine fair, common rules to keep them safe while honoring their growing independence, these shared rules will become “normal.”

Maintain Values

We want our kids to maintain good values including honesty and straightforward communication. But the reality is that peer culture can be tough to navigate. It can be challenging to both clearly state your values and fit in. The code word strategy allows young people to blame parents and make wise decisions — without worrying about losing their friends.

This strategy reinforces that you are a reliable force that can be trusted to get your teen out of trouble. Share Escape Situations With Parents’ Help and a Code Word with your teen to get this important conversation started!

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit

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