My daughter is 18 months old. Recently we have been using scare tactics to make her obey.

  • Do this or else Aunty from the top floor will come and shout at you

  • Do this or the dog will come for you

We do this out of sheer frustration some times when she is very difficult to manage. However when we were playing today, she suddenly told me that Aunty will come and shout at me if I do some random thing. This is the first time she has told me that.

I am really not comfortable using the tactic to get children to obey since I don't want my daughter to have a sense of fear ingrained in her unconsciously. How do we deal with situations were a child is throwing a fit during sleep time (tossing restlessly in her sleep, refusing to sleep on time, etc) or just flat out refusing to drink milk in the mornings etc?

  • 6
    You are creating an adversarial relationship with the aunt and the dog, is that really how you want your child to view those parts of her life? As consequences for improper behavior? – Ron Beyer Jun 17 at 22:54
  • No. It is kind of difficult not to use the tactic when the child is throwing a fit in the middle of the night or absolutely refuses to drink milk in the morning. I am changing the question to what effective tactic we can use other than scaring the child. – ArunM Jun 18 at 0:13
  • 5
    Scare tactics will stop working once the child (a) figures out that they won't happen, or (b) decides the punishment is a cost worth paying for what they want, and then discovers that they won't happen. – pojo-guy Jun 18 at 5:02
up vote 20 down vote accepted

Scare tactics work but for the wrong reason. This is why they are a bad approach for getting your children to behave correctly in the moment or continue to behave correctly.

I grew up in a religious family. A lot of my friends were also very religious. Fortunately, my parents raised me to know that when I did upsetting things, it wasn't going to be an invisible force that punishes me for wrongdoing. It was them who would be upset or disappointed with me along with THEM providing a potential punishment/form of discipline. Other kids around me however were told that when they misbehaved, the invisible deity of our rearing would eventually punish them.

One-by-one, through my teenage and young adult years, I watched as several of my friends who grew up with this lingering fear suddenly realize that when they were no longer religious or believed in said deity, their moral backbone, their behavior was suddenly uprooted and they had to learn to redefine it themselves, often with unfortunate or devastating consequences. When they discovered the original tactic to scare them was a farce or that when they pushed those boundaries and never got supernaturally punished, they continued to push the boundary until the floodgates opened.

When your daughter eventually realizes that Aunty isn't going to come downstairs to shout or that the dog isn't going to get her, she'll behave in whatever way she wants.

When she is doing something you don't want her to do OR she isn't doing something you want her to do, then you should be the source of any consequence. We can only control ourselves.

If she is misbehaving at bedtime, then tell her you don't like it, ask her to stop, and tell her what the consequence will be if she doesn't. Tell her that it frustrates you when she continues to do those things and most importantly if you say a consequence will occur with repeated behavior then you absolutely must follow-through with that consequence.

Determining the consequence is up to you but strive to make the consequence a natural consequence of not doing the desired behavior. When she's older and she doesn't eat her vegetables then a natural consequence would be no dessert or snacks after dinner. Not going to bed on time at night means the bedtime gets earlier the next night.

Leave the scare tactics and teach your daughter to be empathetic. Explain why things upset you and give natural consequences of both desired behavior and undesired behavior. Encourage and show by example desired behavior and your child with follow.

  • I agree with the answer, I'd just like to point out that the third paragraph isn't definite. When you do realize that scare tactics from your childhood don't actually work on you any more, the consequence isn't necessarily that you start pushing boundaries until things turn out badly. It's also possible that you see the reason why your behavior was corrected, and while you don't appreciate the way it was done, you agree that it's led to better behavior, which you want to keep up. – Pascal Jun 18 at 17:50
  • I also agree largely with the answer (+1), but have to state that the consequence should be logical! Hence, if your daughter does not want to eat her vegetables, it is NOT logical that she does not get dessert but that she has to stay hungry or eat some of the other things on the table. YOU do not eat everything either (probably) and hence you should not force your child to do so only because....... Why exactly? SomeShinyObject gave a good hint with saying that you should express to your daughter how her behaviour makes you feel (because your daughter does not know this intuitively) – DonNutella Jun 28 at 7:15

Scare tactics are not a good option, partially because they don't work for long, and partially because of the negatives side effects of using them.

The first problem with scare tactics is that they stop working quickly, if they work at all, if the threat doesn't lead to actions. If one attempts to scare a child with a non-existent threat, but every time the threat is made nothing happens, they child will quickly learn to ignore it. They won't be afraid of it, and instead they lesson they will be learning is that their parents say things that don't come true; which is a bad lesson to teach a child.

You probably have witnessed a clear example of this in your peers actually. Many parents will tell a kid that they will face a punishment if they continue doing (or refusing to do) a course of action. If you watch some children will respond quickly to such a threat, while other's won't respond at all. What's the difference? Good parents act on the threatened punishment if the kid doesn't do as told, while other's don't. The kids who's parents threaten punishment, but don't consistently follow through on it, have learned that threats of punishment can be safely ignored because nothing will come out of it. The same is true with other scare tactics, if the theratened scare doesn't consistently result in the threatened scare happening if the child action's continue the child learns the threat is meaningless.

As I already stated scare tactics can also affect the trust, and communicaiton, between parent and child. If the child learns their parent is consistently willing to make false claims when trying to scare them into behaving how can the child be confident other claims the parent's make are true?

The biggest issue with trust comes when you try to warn a child about legitmant risks. If a kid has learned that you make up scare threats to get her to do something then why should she believe any of them are real? Why should she believe that if she doesn't look both ways when crossing the street she could be hurt? Why should she believe that playing with matches is dangerous? Why should she worry about unsafe sex, your threat of her getting pregnant was likely just to scare her into not having sex after all (you would be shocked how many teenages I spoke to honestly believe that pregnancy/STD are largely scare tactics from parents to scare them into being virgins and not really that scary).

It also encourages a lifestyle of fear...to a degree. Honestly I'm not sure that it will likely lead to much more fear, but only becaues I suspect the children will learn to ignore the threats rather then taking them seriously so the child will not learn to be afraid specifically. It still is best to focus on positive outcomes then the bad things that can happen, and there is still some potential harm here.

And of course there is the fact that using scare tactics means not using other, better, proven techniques like time out. Time out are wonderful consistent approaches to punishment that a parent should teach a child about early, they are your best way of discplining a child in most cases!

Having said all that lets talk about the difference between 'scare tactics' and warning about legitimate risks. It's entirely appropriate to tell a child "you shouldn't do that because you may get hurt", or otherwise warn of realistic negative outcomes of an action. This helps a child to reason through cause and effect of actions and learn to judge risks. Exaggerating risks to scare a child into compliance is bad, explaining actual risks is not. It's best to not spend you life focusing on only the negative potential outcomes of actions, but it's good to teach a child to recognize legitimant risks.

Of course if you constantly protect a child from a risk they may have a harder time understanding it. For this reason I sometimes let kids experience the side effect of taking a risk, if the risk is minor enough. If I see a child doing something that could result in a mildly upsetting consequence, like fall over but not being seriously hurt, or an easily replaced toy being broken etc, I may warn a child of the risk, explain why it is a risk, then let the child decide if he/she want's to continue with the activity. Sometimes that means they get hurt, or lose a toy, or have something else negative happen. If it does I'll comfort them and make them feel better, but I'll also try to remind them that is why I warned them, and unfortunately if you do the thing they were doing sometimes the consequence is something bad happening.

It may seem harsh to allow a child to come to harm, even minor harm, but I view it as a learning opportunity. It allows the child to see that his/her actions have consequences, and when I warn them of something it's because there is a real risk and not just a scare tactic. It also helps children learn the cause and effect of their actions, and even learn to judge risk taking. A child may end up deciding they are willing to keep doing something fun even if there is a slight chance of falling and scrapping their knee because it's fun enough to warrant the risk, while another child may not consider getting hurt worth the fun. Different children have different views, what matters is that I'm helping the child to learn to judge the cause and affect and measure what risks they consider worth taking and which are too dangerous. And of course it's giving them a choice, and encouraging children to make choices is always good for them.

My point being you should not try to scare children into behaving, as they will figure this out and stop trusting you. You can, and should, inform children of legitimate risks and encourage them to reason through rather an action is worth taking a risk over. The difference is that you should never exaggerate a risk or try to force a child's behavior with it, if you want a child to behave in a specific manner you should use more proven forms of discipline like time out.

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