'Threats make children feel unsafe' - here's what to do instead

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"Threatening is coercive. It sets a bad example and makes children feel less safe." Photo: Getty Images
"Threatening is coercive. It sets a bad example and makes children feel less safe." Photo: Getty Images

"Threatening is coercive. It sets a bad example and makes children feel less safe. It is another useless tool that we should throw out of the discipline toolkit," says Karen Quail, a local parenting expert who coaches parents, through her Peace Discipline workshops.

According to her, if you're using threats to keep your children in line, whether at home or at school, you are being coercive - trying to force a particular reaction from a child using fear.

An example of a threat is saying, "If you do not do the dishes now, I will take your Playstation away for a month."

Quail says that the aim of being coercive is to scare the child so much that the child will feel forced into doing what you want them to do.

By being coercive, we model threatening behaviour, and they can learn it and use it on other people and us in future, she explains.

"This kind of discipline does not help your child be more cooperative and respectful; instead, it's undermining what you're trying to do in your discipline and is more likely to have negative results," says Quail.

According to her research, there is evidence that children from homes where people are coercive are more likely to have conduct disorders, or general bad behaviour. 

Read: How to get your kids to brush their teeth without drama or scare tactics

Children feel unsafe

Quail says that threatening makes children feel unsafe - how can they feel safe in an environment where people threaten them and they are constantly in fear?

"Children need to know that if they're doing a wrong thing, you do know how to stop them, and if there's a right thing they do need to do, you know how to get them to do it," says Quail.

Now, how can we get children to stop what they're doing wrong and get them to do the right thing? Especially considering that most of us grew up with hitting, shouting and threatening, and these sometimes feel like the only ways to get children to do what we want them to do...

Also read: Abused, neglected, abandoned... did Roald Dahl hate children as much as the witches did? 

Here are some suggestions:

Work with the child's motivation

Quail says that we get the best results when working with the children's motivation, rather than fear.

"So when you want your child to do something, think of having a reward system or offering a self-reward that they can be motivated to do something rather than doing it because they're scared of you," she explains.

She also suggests, "You might say something like 'if you could operate nicely now in the shop then when we get in the car, I'm going to tell you a funny story'."

Parents will find that children will be more motivated to move along with and cooperate, because now they have something to look forward to, she says.

Another suggestion Quail offers teachers is to say to the class, "Guys, if we get all of this work done, then we can do chill time in the last five minutes of a lesson which is where you can play your music, and we can relax and chat a little.". 

"Suddenly, the class has a reason to get their work done promptly because they have something to look forward to," she says.

Must read: Do you play favourites with your kids?

Responses fit appropriately

"We need a range of tools we can use because different situations call for different tools," she says, and another discipline tool that she suggests is attunement. Attunement is very different to hammering away, she clarifies.

Attunement means that your responses fit appropriately with a child's needs, and their signals may appear as bad behaviour.

For example, when the child waon't pack away at the end of a play session, you can offer: "When you've picked up your toys, we can watch TV."

Quail says when you are doing this, you are not coercive, but you're working with the child's motivation. She warns parents not to use an angry voice when doing this.

"It must sound like you are on your child's side, and you also want them to do the thing they want to do. You're reminding them about what they need to get done," says Quail.

She says this condition helps the child exercise some self-discipline and do something they need to get done.

Also read: Yes it is possible to have a social life when you're a parent. Here's how

Using timeout appropriately

According to Quail, using a timeout appropriately can reduce aggression. Timeouts can be used as an opportunity for self-control, instead of a threat to stop unwanted behaviour.

For example, you can also use a deadline.

Quail suggests that parents use a deadline when dealing with an aggressive situation. But she warns that expecting children to stop immediately may be a little unrealistic when they're into an activity.

You can say something like "off the bed now" and see what happens. At this instance, some children will jump off the bed, but you might set the timer to count to three if you know that your child won't stop, she says.

But she believes that by the time you count to three, they will probably be off of the bed, especially if they know that at this point, you usually give a timeout.

"When you use a timeout of counting to three, you're using your counting as an assessment, not a threat," says Quail.

Quail says there's a considerable difference when using a threat. You are invested in the child choosing your choice, and you're trying to force them to select stuff by themselves, and that's still being coercive.

Whereas, when you use timeout as an assessment, you know that the child could choose to stop or not.

You are not worried about whether they don't choose to stop because you know what you will do if they don't decide to stop. This is an exercise to teach them self-control instead.

Watch the following video for more information and more examples.


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