Threats are woven into the fabric of parenthood. The earliest parents probably threatened to turn this nomadic hunting party around if the kids didn’t stop doing an Ursus spelaeus impression. But the persistence of parental saber-rattling doesn’t necessarily prove its virtue—or effectiveness. Threats only work if you know how to make them.
“It depends entirely on the type of threat,” says Dr. Nancy Darling, Professor of Psychology at Oberlin College and author of the Thinking About Kids blog at Psychology Today. She notes that many threats are essentially disciplinary warnings, and they’re necessary. Essentially, a parent can’t talk about the loss of a privilege as a natural consequence of a child’s action without making a threat.
“In that case, what you’re saying is ‘If you behave in this way that you know you’re not supposed to these are the consequences,” says Darling. “And that’s a perfectly legitimate parenting technique.” Darling calls these “reasonable threats” and says they are essentially giving a child a choice and time to think about whether their next decision is worth the consequence of their actions.
Short term loss of privilege to correct an anti-social behavior is part of that protection. Loss of privilege doesn’t necessarily suggest harm. So a parent pointing to reasonable consequences to bad actions does not feel threatening, despite making a threat. A kid can’t go through life not wearing pants. Therefore refusing to put on pants results in not being able to play outside for awhile. But things change when a kid’s insistence on doing something as benign as not wearing pants is greeted with a threat of physical harm or parental love lost.
What’s important is the kid’s perception of how perilous the stakes are. Darling points out that developmental psychologists have long understood that the most important thing about parenting is that parents provide a kid unconditional positive regard. That’s psychologist speak for being able to assure children they’ll always be loved and protected—no matter how many buttons are pushed, or how many shades of purple a parent’s face turns because of it. Threaten to pull support and you’re creating a very different situation.
“It threatens their identity,” says Darling. “It’s telling them they’re not someone worth caring about if they behave in a certain way.”
Being coercive doesn’t necessarily require telling a child they’ll no longer receive love if they misbehave. Coercion can be much more subtle and is present any time a parent is attempting to induce guilt. It’s as simple as saying, “I’ll be disappointed in you,” or “If you were a good kid you wouldn’t do that,” or “If you really cared about me you wouldn’t misbehave.”
While some of those phrases don’t sound like threats, they are. Just like telling a child that they’re not really scared, tired or angry, they’re threats to a kid’s identity through an invalidation of their feelings and their sense of self-worth. And the outcomes for this kind of parenting aren’t good. Research shows that coercive parenting is associated with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and poor peer relationships.
“Think about the flip side,” says Darling. “The good thing about having unconditional positive regard from your parent is that you think you’re worth treating well. When other people don’t treat you well, you leave. You find good friends.”
However, none of this addresses the stereotypical threat—those menacing grumbles that begin with “Don’t make me … “ or end with “ … or else.” Turns out these kinds of undefined, open-ended threats don’t work. That’s because the kid has no consequence to ponder. What happens if dad comes up here? Who knows? Who cares? And surely he’s not going to actually turn the car around three hours into a six-hour drive.
That said, parents sometimes use open-ended threats to instill a sense of real, long-lasting, dread in a child. That works. It’s just not helpful.
“Everything we know from studying gazillion years of punishment and reward is that you want it to happen quickly,” says Darling. That’s also the problem with the old stand-by threat: “Wait until your father/mother gets home.” Suddenly, not only is dad/mom the heavy, the kid is steeped in gut-churning anxiety for hours. By the time a consequence arrives, the kid is afraid, but no longer focused on the trespass.
If threats only work when they’re concrete and immediate, they also only work in an environment of trust. Effective threats are connected to natural consequences that don’t taint or fundamentally alter a relationship where affection is not contingent on behavior.
“I love you even while I punish you,” Darling says. “And when it’s done it’s done.”