Using scare tactics makes children feel less safe and sets a bad example. Do this instead

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"Your child's trust in you is precious and beautiful, so think about how you would feel if you lost that trust." Photo: Getty Images
"Your child's trust in you is precious and beautiful, so think about how you would feel if you lost that trust." Photo: Getty Images

As a parent, I admit I am sometimes guilty of using fear to get my child to co-operate, learn a lesson or evoke some authority when my patience has worn thin.

This was done to me as a child, and in my adult life, I have seen myself doing to my super energetic and naughty toddler precisely what my parents did to me.

But I learnt that this is wrong, and if you are a parent that is using fear to control your children's behaviour by exaggerating danger or telling a dangerous lie, just like me, it's time to stop as this may make your child feel less safe.

According to mom Karen Quail – who has a background as a school counsellor and teacher and now works independently, coaching and consulting on non-violent discipline (Peace Discipline) - using scare tactics is wrong, and she explains why.

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Here are some examples of scare tactics:

1. "Come away from there. That dog will bite you." (when the dog is not fierce).

2. "That policeman will come over here and see that you are not wearing your seatbelt, and he's going to arrest you and put you in jail / I will go to jail, and you will never see me again."

3. "Don't open that. There is a horrible thing in there, and it will come out and give you a big fright."

4. "Each time you tell a lie, some of your hair will fall out / If you tell a lie, your father will die."

"In each of these examples, the adult uses a scare tactic. They're using fear to control the child or coerce them into doing what they want them to do," says Quail.

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What is wrong with doing this?

1. Being the source of their fear

Quail says children need to feel safe with us. We should be the people they come to if they need reassurance and comfort, not the source of their fear.

2. Children imitate adults

Children imitate us, so we need to be careful what we model.

"Most of us are unhappy when children lie or exaggerate danger to control or manipulate others, s we should not use such methods either, because otherwise, we are modelling the very things we don’t want them to do," says Quail.

3. Breaking their trust.

"Sooner or later, they will realise that you exaggerate or tell lies to scare them, and they will start to trust you less or take you less seriously," says Quail.

"Your child's trust in you is a precious and beautiful thing.  Think about how you would feel if you lost that trust."

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Here is what to do instead

Give useful guidance

Looking at the first example, Quail says that if you think the dog will bite the child, step in to protect them, take their hand, lead them to a safe distance away from the dog, or remove the dog to where it can't bite your child.

"If you're worried that your child will get too close to the dog, don't exaggerate the threat to control the child's behaviour. Rather, give the child useful guidance about being with the dog," advises Quail.

When you say, "that dog is going to bite you", it doesn't give any helpful guidance to the child. Instead, it just adds fear.

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Make it worth it

In the second example, the likely reaction of the police officer is exaggerated to scare the child into putting their seatbelt on. Not wearing a seatbelt in the car is very important for safety, but using fear to get the child to do it is entirely unnecessary, says Quail.

There are other ways to do this. For example, you could say, "If all the seatbelts are fastened by the time I count to three, I will tell you a joke," suggests Quail.

Make it worth it somehow, she says.

"I can remember saying to three young children in the back of a car, 'Can you guys do maths?' Yes, they said.

'If I give you some numbers to add together, will you be able to do that?'

"Yes. 'Okay, let's play a math game. As soon as I hear everybody's safety belt say click, we can start," says Quail.

"Almost immediately, I heard three seatbelts click. That was great. So I started with, 'Right, what is two plus five? And they had so much fun just adding numbers," adds Quail.

She says the principle in these two examples is that you're working with a child's motivation rather than fear.

Avoid lying to control the situation

She explains that the third example may not cause children to do the right thing but rather fuel their curiosity to want to open the container to see if something horrible is going to come out.

Instead of lying to control the situation, Quail suggests that the parent should say, "Please leave that container closed. It mustn't be opened".

"And then see if they can manage to be near that container and not open it. If they make another move to open it, you could remove the container and put it in a safe place out of reach," says Quail.

'Teaching our children about lying'

When it comes to the fourth example, Quail says that parents contradict the very message they are trying to send to the child.

"They are trying to make the child scared of lying by using lies. They're modelling the exact opposite of what they're trying to teach and contradicting their values," adds Quail.

She says we need to make sure we model our values and not use lies to get what we want.

Also, "Children are more likely to tell us the truth if they feel safe with us. Make sure you're not using fear-based methods of discipline, local punishment, shaming, humiliation or threats," adds Quail.

"Another option would be to use a story to teach children about lying. Like, tell a story with a character that tells a lie, and the story repeatedly illustrates the consequences of the lie, such as the lie starting a bad feeling which gets heavier and heavier the longer they didn't tell the truth, or how that one lie led to another and another as the character tried to cover up the first lie," adds Quail.

Show them the consequences of lying

"The story could also show the consequences once people find out about the lie, such as the others stop trusting the character who lied in each of the examples used in the story."

Be open with children about trust

"Talk openly with your children about trust and about lying. Show them that when somebody lies, we have to increase checking and monitoring because you're unsure if you trust what they say," says Quail.

"You might say to a teenager, 'The amount of freedom you currently have matches the trust we have in you. If we were to find out that you have been lying or doing dangerous things, we would need to change the amount of freedom we give you because you show us that you cannot handle that freedom'," adds Quail.

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Show them the consequences of lying

"The story could also show the consequences once people find out about the lie, such as the others stop trusting the character who lied in each of the examples used in the story."

Quail says that using scare tactics has undesirable effects on the child. It makes children feel less safe, undermines their trust in us, and sets a bad example. Instead, she suggests that we use the more effective tools mentioned here.

For more information, watch the video below.


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