Most of us resort to coaxing or threats when we want something. But when does persuasion become emotional blackmail?

One evening, 16-year-old Ved announces that he has invited four boys home for a sleepover. His mother protests, but Ved insists that he deserves a treat after a gruelling exam. When his mother does not acquiesce, Ved pushes her vulnerable button. Knowing how guilty she feels about working long hours in the office, he shoots back, “You’re more interested in your work than me. If you don’t allow my friends to come, I won’t come for any family function.” Exasperated, his mother relents.

In another house, a similar tactic is being deployed; this time by a mother on her daughter. Mita is eager to spend Saturday at her friend’s house while her parents plan to visit relatives. However, at the last minute, Mita’s father has to travel. When the child is ready to leave, her mother moans, “Mita, how can you leave me alone?” As the child looks despondent, her mother adds, “I’ll be very lonely.” Crushed, Mita cancels her play date.

In both situations, a person is manipulating a loved one to get what he or she wants. When this occurs time and again, the parent and child are caught in the vicious clutches of emotional blackmail. Acclaimed therapist Susan Forward acknowledges that all of us coax, cajole and sometimes even threaten our loved ones when we want something. But when do these more benign forms of persuasion morph into emotional blackmail? According to Forward, “Manipulation becomes emotional blackmail when it is used repeatedly…at the expense of our own wishes and well-being.” She identifies six steps of emotional blackmail.

For example, Ved first makes a demand. When his mother resists, he puts pressure saying he deserves a treat. As she doesn’t relent, Ved makes her feel guilty and threatens her with a consequence. His mother then gives in, reinforcing Ved’s tactics. Thus, mother and son establish an unhealthy pattern.

Emotions like fear, obligation and guilt, which any conscientious person feels, form the tool kit of the blackmailer. But unlike everyday expressions, Forward says, “Blackmailers turn up the volume, blasting us until we’re so uncomfortable we will do almost anything” to return to an acceptable baseline of comfort. Contrary to what we may think, blackmailers don’t necessarily use these tactics by conscious design. Over time they have learnt that when they behave in a certain way, they end up getting what they want.

Emotional blackmail can mar any intimate relationship, but is especially pernicious in a parent and child bond. Indian parents are particularly prone to getting enmeshed in the obligation trap as many feel that they must sacrifice everything, including their well-being, for their children. I am not suggesting that parents never give in to a child’s request; parenting, more than any other relationship, is more about ‘give’ than ‘take,’ but children should not cross the Rubicon.

Victims of blackmail also play a role. When a parent is repeatedly blackmailed by a self-centred child, the parent can curtail this noxious practice. First, the parent must not fear the child’s reaction. Most interactions involving blackmail pose a false sense of urgency or calamity. Thus, Ved’s mother may bide time saying, “I cannot give permission for a sleepover just now. I need half an hour to wind down.” If Ved gets upset, and he is likely to, his mother should hold her ground. With time on her hands, she can then survey the situation more collectedly. She may ask herself if her son’s request is reasonable, and if not, what her options are. While she may feel that he does merit a treat, she simply cannot cook up a meal instantly. But instead of an outright denial, she frames a thoughtful response. “Ved, I know you’ve worked hard and deserve something special. But you need to check with me at least a day in advance before inviting your friends. You can do something else with them today like watching a movie.” Initially, a storm may ensue and Ved may stoke her guilt by comparing her to other moms; however, if his mother is steadfast, Ved will realise that he cannot twist her around.

Just as we have to be mindful about being manipulated by a child, we also have to watch whether we use fear, obligation or guilt regularly so that children cave in to our every plea. Do we hold reasonable expectations commensurate with a child’s developmental stage? When a parent’s needs always take precedence over a child’s, manipulation is likely to result.

Needy parents who begrudge their child’s gradual but growing independence may unknowingly use negative tactics. Ironic and unbelievable as it may seem, some extremely controlling parents begrudge children their own happiness and feel belittled when their child does not need them anymore. Unable to let go, some parents interpret any move by a child towards autonomy as an infringement of love and respect.

Of course, emotional blackmail is not limited to the parent-child dyad but can poison any human relationship. Like other forms of stress, being manipulated also has a rub-off effect. A man who is blackmailed by his boss may then control his wife who then takes it out on the kids. Thus, it behoves us to repeatedly examine our patterns of interaction, especially with our children, to ensure that positive emotions like warmth, love and trust override their darker and more sinister cousins.

E-mail: arunasankara@gmail.com