Last Updated on September 2, 2021.
Tired of resorting to threats with your kids to no avail? Learn the negative effects of threatening a child, plus better ways to handle kids who just don’t listen!
I think we’re all guilty of making threats when it comes to our children. Just this week I’ve said “If you don’t eat your dinner, you get no more food tonight.” and “If you don’t stay in bed, I’m shutting your door!”
And it never works.
You’re almost always met with more resistance. Rarely do you get compliance, or even a little cooperation for that matter. You’re just inviting more power struggles.
And the truth is you cannot make another human eat. You cannot make another human sleep. Or use the potty. Threatening a child is a desperate attempt to assert control in areas where we literally have none.
Luckily, there are better ways to handle the frustration and anger when your kids just won’t listen.
What if you could get your kids to listen without ever raising your voice? Imagine a world where you don’t have to use fear to maybe get your kids to do what they’re told. It’s possible!
Negative Effects of Threatening a Child
But first, here are the significant negative effects of threatening a child.
Threats damage the parent / child relationship
Threats create resentment. They often drive a wedge between family members. Kids don’t feel understood. Parents feel disrespected. And it perpetuates a cycle of blame and shame. The power struggles often escalate and can create life-long relationship struggles.
Threats foster a reward culture and a “what’s in it for me?” mindset
When we make threats, we’re telling kids that we don’t think they can behave properly without an external (or extrinsic) motivation.
Most parents want kids to behave because it’s the right thing to do. Threats encourage kids to weigh the cost / benefit of continuing their behavior versus the threat. In other words, is the threat enough to make me stop my misbehavior?
And it’s a slippery slope. If your child decides the threat isn’t enough to entice them, then you’ll make bigger threats. Until the threats are completely ridiculous. Have you ever heard a parent say “Stop or you’ll be grounded for the rest of the year!” or “If you don’t listen, you’ll never get dessert again!”
Threats destroy motivation
Threats are not an effective form of motivation. When people feel threatened, they take measures to not get caught. They don’t generally change their behavior. So we need to find better forms of motivation to get kids to behavior.
Threats erode self-esteem
Negativity and threats make children feel incapable or inadequate. This can negatively impact self-esteem and confidence.
Threats can erode empathy
Empathy is learned and practiced. And most importantly, it must be demonstrated by parents. When we resort to threats, children do not feel your empathy. They feel frustrated and defeated. They feel alone.
When we threaten our children, we’re usually angry, and we aren’t truly considering our children’s perspective. We aren’t acknowledging their feelings and desires, which can help promote empathy.
Threats hinder effective communication
Close your eyes and think of a situation where you were threatened. It could be a situation where your freedom was threatened. Or a situation where your most prized possessions are threatened. You’d immediately get defensive. Your brain would revert to a fight or flight scenario.
The exact same thing happens when we threaten kids. And they are incapable of having effective conversations when they are in fight or flight mode. There’s no opportunity for learning, for compromise, or for emotional growth in this state of mind.
What to Do Instead
Strategy #1 – Compromise
You can use comprise to avoid the negative effects of threatening your child! In the heat of the moment, when you feel your blood start to boil, try these 5 steps to compromise with your kids instead of making threats.
Leave the room. Step away from the situation. A great choice would be to step outside (nature has a calming effect). Give yourself a couple minutes to catch your breath.
Example: Recently my 3 year old, who is obsessed with the color red, wanted to paint her own toenails red. I was trying to fix lunch, my 6 year old was doing school work, and it just wasn’t a great time to talk about pedicures. She was insistent, and continued to whine. Instead of saying “If you don’t put the polish down, I’ll never paint your nails again!”, I excused myself to the bathroom for a 2 minute break.
Acknowledge Your Child’s Perspective
Let your child know that you’ve heard their side. If you validate their feelings and desires, they will be much more open to your perspective. Make them feel heard.
Example: “I know you want to paint your toenails red. You love the color red, and you love having pretty toenails!”
Make Your Case
Share your thoughts or concerns. Express your desires. Tell them what your ultimate goal is.
Example: “Nail polish is very messy. You may not paint your nails by yourself. And right now mommy and sissy are very busy. But I would love to help you paint nails later!
Ask Your Child for Feedback
Directly ask your child what they think of your concerns. Ask for their ideas or solutions.
Example: “Since it’s almost lunch time it’s not a good time to do our nails. When do you think would be a good time to paint nails?”
Come to an Agreement
Be prepared to compromise. Give your kids a little bit of power. You’ll be surprised at how well they cooperate when they can provide a little bit of input.
Example: My 3 year old quickly offered a solution. She said “How about after lunch please?” The whining stopped. She knew she was going to get her way, and she knew exactly when it was going to happen. Mom rage, power struggles, and unnecessary threats were all averted!
If at any point, your temper flares or your child starts to escalate, say “I really want to work this out with you, but that’s not possible when we are so angry. Let’s revisit this in 10 minutes.” (or after lunch, or whatever time-frame you both need to cool off).
Strategy #2 – Encouragement
The truth is your kids WANT to please you. They want to feel connected. Kids naturally want to feel a sense of belonging and significance. They aren’t defiant for the sake of being defiant. They want to feel capable. And they want to have control over their lives.
You can use this to your advantage!
There are three factors you need to consider when reframing your threats into encouragement.
Think about WHAT you say.
Give your comments a positive spin. Avoid using words like “No” or “Don’t”. When humans hear negative terms like this, they often feel defensive or defiant. Even adults do this! It’s the typical “I want what I can’t have” or the “You can’t tell me what to do” mindset.
If you reframe your message into a positive encouragement, you’re much more likely to get your point across AND get a little cooperation.
This is easier than it sounds. Here are some real life examples from my house:
- THREAT: “If you don’t finish your dinner, you won’t get any snacks tonight!”
- ENCOURAGEMENT: “Let’s finish our dinner so we can have a treat tonight for a snack!”
- THREAT: “If you color on the wall with markers, I will take the markers away!”
- ENCOURAGEMENT: “I love your pretty pictures. You’re welcome to color with markers as long as you color on paper only!”
- THREAT: “If you don’t pick up your toys I will put them in toy jail!”
- ENCOURAGEMENT: “When you’ve picked up your toys we can get out the kinetic sand.”
- THREAT: “Get to bed now or we won’t read a book!”
- ENCOURAGEMENT: “If we go to bed now we’ll have time for a book and snuggles! If you wait, we will run out of time and have to try again tomorrow.”
It may take a little while for you to retrain your brain to think this way. But after a while this will become a habit, and you’ll avoid power struggles naturally!
Don’t underestimate body language.
Non-verbal communication is more powerful than the actual words you say.
You could say “Please don’t do that.” and it could be perceived in many different ways.
Imagine saying this phrase standing over your child, pointing down at them. They would feel powerless and ashamed.
If, instead, you kneeled down, wrapped your arms around them, and said gently “Please don’t do that.” They would feel loved and valued. And they are much more likely to comply with your request.
Here are few tips to ensure your body language fosters connection:
- Get down on your kid’s leave
- Embrace or touch them lovingly when you speak
- Make eye contact
- Avoid frowning or making an “angry” face
HOW you say it matters too!
You can change the meaning of a phrase with your tone and volume. How you speak matters when you’re talking to your kids. Instead of using a loud, angry voice. Try using one of these methods of delivering your encouragement to kids:
- A light and airy voice
- A calm, quiet, neutral voice
- A bright and lively singing voice
You may feel silly using different voices when you’re trying to encourage your kids to behave. But you’ll find that you disarm your kids with your playful and calm demeanor. At the very least, make sure your deliver encouragement in a calm manner
Here’s the thing. Both Strategy #1 and Strategy #2 take effort on your part. And it’s really difficult to stay calm, and try new parenting strategies when you’re frustrated, overworked, and exhausted. But if you can practice these strategies.
And you are going to make mistakes. That’s ok. Just keep trying. You can even use my favorite Positive Parenting technique: the “do-over”. If you react the wrong way, simply say “Oops, I shouldn’t have reacted that way. Can I try again?”. Using this tool will strengthen your bond with your kid AND offer you an opportunity to try again.
Proactive Strategies to Prevent Power Struggles
It is possible to reduce or eliminate power struggles without threatening a child. Here are easy ways you can proactively prevent power struggles in your house.
Spend time building strong family bonds
Give your kids power
Let your kids make choices for themselves. You can easily offer choices like what to wear, what to have for lunch, or whether they wash their hands or brush their teeth first. The more opportunities you give them to make choices
Build your kids confidence
Give your kids responsibilities where they can succeed, and build confidence! Chores or family contributions are great confidence builders. They’ll feel valued and like a significant part of the family.
Limit screen time
It’s easier said than done, but screen time can create big issues for kids. They’re much better off playing with toys, especially outside! Set limits and stick to them, even if its inconvenient.
Keep calming or therapeutic toys on hand
Occasionally you’ll find something that your kids will play with for hours on end. My kids love water play and kinetic sand. Some kids love Playdoh. Keep these items on hand, and when your kids are struggling (i.e. whining, frustrated, etc.), let them get lost in one of these toys.
Practice calming strategies together
One of the best skills you can teach your kids is how to regulate their emotions. Super simple grounding techniques can be used when tempers flare, or as daily mindfulness activities. Practice these 17 grounding strategies together!
Practice positive affirmations daily
When kids feel good about themselves they behave better. Practice simple positive affirmations every day to build self confidence and esteem.
Get a visual timer
One of my favorite parenting products is a visual timer. It’s one that kids can see countdown. Let the time be the boss. Instead of mom hollering about bedtime, let the timer be the enemy. It seems simple, but when the timer or clock is running the show, there’s less animosity towards mom. In fact, you can offer empathy and commiserate with your child. I often say “Oh, what a bummer! I was having so much fun with you, but the timer says it’s bedtime!”