Parents Lose with Empty Threats

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The family van has been rolling down the highway for the past five hours. Mom and Dad are in the front seat and their two children are in the back seat. By this point in the trip, the kids are starting to get antsy. It starts with a slight poke by the sister quickly followed by a punch in the shoulder from the brother. The sister yells at the brother, “Quit punching me! Mom, he’s punching me again!” The mother turns around for the eighth time and says, “So help me, if you two can’t get along, then we are turning this car right around and no one will be going to the beach for vacation!” Most parents who have gone on vacations traveling by car with multiple children can relate.

This particular situation is a good example of a parenting technique called empty threats. In this situation, the children know that Mom and Dad are not going to turn the car around this far into the trip. The parents know they are not going to turn around. The question then becomes, why would Mom even utter the threat? The reason is a sincere hope on Mom’s part that the threat is enough to change the children’s behavior even when there are no consequences to back the threat up. The hope is bolstered by the fact that empty threats have worked in the past.

Empty threats usually find their way out of parents’ mouths when they are stressed and in a situation where a child needs to behave. It is easy to slip into a pattern of using empty threats because initially, they work. The problem is that as parents increase the use of empty threats, the less effective they become. Not only do empty threats become less effective the more you use them, they also infect other parent requests that do have consequences if not followed.

What eventually happens is that parents become frustrated because their child, now a teenager, no longer obeys their rules. Some of this teenage behavior is the teenager’s effort to become independent. The other part is that the parents have trained the teenager to ignore their requests because there are rarely any negative consequences that result. Parents cannot do much about their teenagers’ desire to become independent but they can do something about having their rules obeyed.

We are strong supporters of having children obey the rules that their parents set. Once children get used to the idea of obeying parental rules, parents will have a much easier time and a more peaceful family existence. The trick is to avoid empty threats. Make sure that every rule and/or request that parents make has a negative consequence associated with it. Each time the child decides to break a rule or deny a request, the child needs to be punished. The child will quickly make the connection that breaking a rule or denying a request is quickly followed by a punishment such as time out or restricting privileges.

Just as important as being punished for breaking rules is being rewarded when children obey. This does not mean an ice cream cone each time the child obeys. Rewards can and should be small such as, “Thank you so much for helping me out.” The combined results of rewards and punishments are that children will obey more rules and requests.

This article was published in the Richmond Register Health Beat Magazine in September 2010.

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