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Why Threatening Children Is Futile

“When gentle persuasion (of children) falls on deaf ears, we resort to ridicule and rebuke. Then we return to threats and punishment. This is the modus operandi of a mutual frustration society.” – Haim Ginnott, child psychologist and parent educator.

Most parents can relate to that quote; who hasn’t resorted to threatening children at least once in the heat of a particularly exasperating moment? But the quote’s ending is particularly pertinent because, while threats might result in immediate compliance, they don’t actually change behaviour long term. And if used enough, threatening can actually damage the parent-child relationship.

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Threats operate in two ways: by evoking the possibility of withholding something the child desires, or of doing something the child would find undesirable. Examples of the former could include:

  • “I’m not going to play with you, if you don’t finish your homework.”
  • “You can’t have ice cream, if you don’t finish your vegetables.”
  • “I won’t buy you new clothes, if you don’t get high marks on your exam.”

Examples of the latter include:

  • “If you throw that, I will lock you in the bathroom and switch off the lights.”
  • “Wait till you get home, and see how your [other parent] handles you.”
  • “I’m going to post a photo of your dirty room on Facebook, if you don’t clean it.”
  • “I’m going to tell your teacher how you hit your younger brother, if you don’t stop.”

Threatening children may work in the short term, but only when children know to really fear the undesirable outcome (i.e. they know you will follow through). This fear can easily lead the threat to backfire, as in the case of a 7-year-old client who regularly heard the last threat above; he told me tearfully, “This is unfair, and the next time Mamma tells me this, I would stop going to school.”

Even when threats result in short-term compliance – a tidy room, a high mark, a clean plate – they don’t actually work long term because the child’s motivation is to avoid the feared, negative outcome, not to value and pursue the desired behaviour. Over time, the opportunity for the child to develop his or her own voice, goals and values is lost.

A young parent once reached out to me because she was concerned that she didn’t know how to communicate with her 2-year-old outside of rewards and threats. She said that during her own childhood, her parents would routinely threaten not to take her on holidays if she underperformed in exams. She made sure always to get high marks as a child, but later in life chose to drop out of a graduation programme. Looking back, she believes that choice was rooted in her association of education with fear.

Fear is a toxic emotion in the parent-child relationship, and threats can shake the foundation of trust and security and weaken the secure attachment of children to their parents. And the outcome of certain threats can damage it further. Take the threat: “I won’t play with you, if you [X].” For it to be effective, you must withhold a beautiful ritual of connection with your child.

With older children, fear can prompt rebellion that further distances them from parents. And if they feel they can’t express their frustration, it can turn into anger or even deep trauma.

These scars may be more serious than parents assume. When a child grows up in an environment of threats, he or she learns they are the most effective way of negotiating or winning an argument. It can be a dangerous if that lesson is learned before consequences are understood: I once worked with a 6-year-old who threatened to jump off the 13th floor because her parents scolded her. And later in life, children may display similar patterns in their marriage and close relationships, as in the case of the young mother above.

Instead of threatening children, try listening. Acknowledge their emotions and behaviour and then respond to it. For example, if your child is refusing to take a bath, you could remain firm, gently reinforce the limits – or better still, add humour to the situation. Learn to be creative and think of these moments as problem solving. Parents have told me that the minute they allow the child to give their favourite toy a bath, the child is ready to take a bath.

I always ask parents if threatening children works for them. The answer is always a no. Trying a different approach could not only be more effective, but also be better for your child and your bond.

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