Escape Tricky Situations With a Code Word

This article was written by the former chair of our Youth Advisory Board, Sarah Hinstorff, with contributions by Youth Advisory Board members Paul Burdett and Gaby Baum.

Code Word Strategy: Help Remove Yourself From Uncomfortable Situations

It can be hard to back out of an uncomfortable situation. You might be worried that your friends will judge your choices. It’s hard to go against the crowd. You still want to be accepted and to fit in. So, how can you do the right thing by respecting your own boundaries and values and still keep your friends? Answer: Use a code word.

Wait, What’s a Code Word?

A Code Word allows you to get out of an uncomfortable situation with your parents’ help. It lets you shift the blame to your parents. The idea is you can get away without feeling embarrassed in front of your friends.

This is one secret that many parents are happy to keep. They want to make sure you’re safe and sound at all times. They don’t mind playing the bad guy knowing you’re making a smart decision — to get yourself out of what could turn into a bad situation.

Ok, So How Does it Work?

Pick a basic word or phrase that you could say in any situation. If you call or text your parents and mention the word, they’ll know that it means you need a way out. It will trigger them to either come to pick you up or create an excuse to “demand” you get home. You should be able to easily drop your Code Word into a phone conversation or text without making others suspicious.   

After you’ve established the word, keep it consistent. Make it a universal call for help, no matter what situation you might encounter. You may want to consider changing the word after you’ve used it to prevent your peers from picking up on your call for help.

When and How to Use the Code Word

Think about a situation like this. There’s a party at a friend’s house. It was supposed to end at 11:00 pm and wasn’t supposed to have alcohol. It’s now 10:45 pm and you are ready to leave. But your friends tell you that the party’s just getting started. They want you to stay and drink with them.

This is when you could send your parents the signal that you need a way out. Maybe your word is “garage.” You could say something like, “Would you mind checking if I left my jacket in the garage?” This will trigger them to tell you they want you to come home. All that matters in choosing your code word is that it can easily be slipped into a sentence that will feel natural. This strategy allows you to avoid hurting your friends or isolating yourself by rejecting their behavior.

Or here’s another example. You are on a date, and halfway through, you sense your date wants to do things you don’t. You want to leave, but don’t want to offend your date. Using a code word here would allow you to quickly and effectively exit the situation.

Asking for help is a sign of maturity. It shows you’re responsible and know when something is out of your control.

The Code Word Isn’t a Crutch

While the code word strategy can be a helpful tool to get out of uncomfortable situations, relying on it too much may get in the way of your relationships. If you find yourself frequently in situations where you need a code word, consider the choices that put you there in the first place. Are you ignoring harmful situations until they become too close to dangerous? Or maybe you are hanging out with people whose interests and values differ from yours?

Consider making informed choices to change the situations you find yourself in. Have a talk with your friends and let them know you’re not comfortable. If they’re really your friends, they will understand. Talk to your parents or other caring adults if you need help navigating these conversations. Know your own limits and take ownership of your decisions.

You Can Always Ask for Help

It might feel embarrassing to be asking for help to remove yourself from an uncertain or unsafe situation. Maybe you’re worried that it signals you aren’t able to handle something on your own. However, to a parent, asking for help means just the opposite. Asking for help is a sign of maturity. It shows you’re responsible enough to recognize when something is out of your control. When your parents understand you want to stay safe and do the right thing, they will be more likely to trust you to navigate the world independently.

If you want to set up a code word but aren’t sure how to bring it up, share our piece “Blaming Parents: A Real-Life Strategy to Help Young People Stay Away from Trouble“ with your parents to get the conversation started!

Thoughts From Members of the Youth Advisory Board

Gaby, 19

“A code word is a tool which can be used to ask for help in a discrete way. This helps the connection between you and your parents grow and prosper. It is a shared secret. Your life can depend on it. Doing the right thing can be hard, especially in this day and age with all the peer pressure and daunting circumstances you might find yourself in. That is why a simple code word could be a lifesaving gift and you should never hesitate to use it should the need arise. Never forget that your parents were once your age and they only want you to be safe. They don’t want you not to enjoy life or not to have fun. Using a code word helps facilitate your comfort, and theirs.”

Paul, 19

“If you really need to leave an uncomfortable situation, you could even mention, ‘But I finished my homework and don’t want to come home yet!’ on the phone to make your hesitance to leave more clear to your friends. Just make sure you’ve already told your parents that you plan on saying that in a code word situation.”

About Center for Parent and Teen Communication

CPTC is fortunate to receive editorial contributions from a range of multi-disciplinary experts, journalists, youth, and more.

Read more articles by this author

Get our weekly newsletter for practical tips to strengthen family connections.