Children. They can get you really worked up and so many parents resort to making threats in an attempt to regain some control over the situation even when they don’t intend to follow through with consequences. Most parents default to using the threat of punishment to get their kids in control but it’s not nearly as effective as they hope, certainly not in the long run. Here’s why you shouldn’t make empty threats to children and perhaps what you should do instead.
Common reasons why parents use empty threats
Parents often resort to empty threats for a variety of reasons including:
- Lack of effective discipline strategies
- In the moment frustration
- It’s just default behaviour, something they picked up from their parents and other adulting parents around them
- They are fearful and so they use it to protect their children from danger or harm
- Lack of understanding of child development and how to best communicate with children
- Reluctance to be the bad guy who enforces consequences and so you hide behind empty threats
The negative effects of empty threats
The inconsistency that comes when parents sometimes follow through on punishment and other times they don’t can be confusing for children. What values do you really care about and how important are they to you if sometimes you enforce them and other times you don’t? Consistency communicates what’s really important to you plus children need predictability, it gives them a sense of safety.
Teaches them they can get away with things
Empty threats teach children that they can on occasion get away with bad behaviour. Even worse, it can lead to a worsening of their behaviour as they test the bounds of whether or not they’ll be able to get away with it.
Lack of trust
Children may learn to distrust their parents or caregivers which can lead to a breakdown in the parent-child relationship. There’s something deceptive about it that can make a parent come off as distrustful.
Parents are usually angry and frustrated when they threaten their children. That means they’re not considering the child’s perspective and not acknowledging their feelings which is an empathy deficit. Children can end up feeling guilty, ashamed, inadequate and dealing with the emotional consequence of feeling constantly threatened.
Doesn’t teach values
When you make threats, essentially what you’re telling children is that they cannot behave correctly without external motivation and fear of consequences. Threats, empty or otherwise, encourage kids to weigh their behaviour versus the threat and use that as a metric to decide what to do which doesn’t focus on values and can be a slippery slope. Sometimes children comply out of fear not respect, and certainly not an understanding of why it’s wrong for them to do that thing.
What to do instead
- Reward positive behaviour first. Positive reinforcement works.
- Model appropriate behaviour
- Enforce rules consistently and follow through on consequences
- Give clear instructions
- Try and stay calm when dealing with challenging behaviour from children
- Communicate your values and explain the reasons for the consequences clearly in a way that the child can understand and internalize
- Use natural consequences, for example, if they refuse to wear their jacket when leaving the house, let them go out, feel that cold and hopefully they’ll remember it.
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