Not sure if there is a cultural difference. In our family it is considered normal to frighten the child so that he behaves the way we want.

Parent: Eat that quickly or the God will punish you!
Parent: Don't go on the stairs. The ghost is hiding there and it'll catch you!
Parent: Be quiet or the police will grab you!

Does this kind of behavior from the parent's side has any abnormal effects on the baby in the longer run? Can this behavior be accepted as normal?

Has any research been done on this aspect?

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    Making children scared of the police seems like a bad idea all around. That said, plenty of kids grow up fearing a god of some sorts--for better or worse, I guess.
    – DA01
    Commented May 20, 2013 at 20:52
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    1. Love your questions! 2. No cultural difference here. Commented May 20, 2013 at 22:12
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    In the long run its a no. I speak from personal experience and research on it, dont havve time to re gooogle it but i did read about it 2 years back when i was looking for someone else.
    – tgkprog
    Commented May 20, 2013 at 22:26
  • See this question on undoing the problems of such behaviour: parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/5854/… Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 11:40

7 Answers 7


I don't know about the "frightening the child" aspect - personally I think frightening / shocking a child who tries to do something dangerous, like run into the road (eg by shouting loudly) is quite effective.

But I think the thing that all your examples have in common is that the parent is appealing to an external authority (God, ghost, policeman) to be the disciplining force - possibly implying to the child that the parent themselves doesn't have any authority or isn't to be respected.

Like any discipline tactic, I think this one is best used sparingly - it may make sense sometimes, but shouldn't be the only way you ever approach discipline issues.

In addition, one of the key cornerstones of most discipline strategies is not to threaten something you won't follow through on (otherwise the child learns it's an empty threat). What happens when they defy you and then God / the ghost / the policeman doesn't punish them?

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    As far as research, I didn't find any, but the phrases to look for would be things like "appeal to authority figure" or "appeal to third party".
    – Vicky
    Commented May 20, 2013 at 12:33

Barbara Ehrenreich addressed this issue in her book Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (beginning on page 92). She contends that the practice creates anxiety in children that is not only lifelong but passed on to later generations. Children are helpless and susceptible to the fears implanted by their elders not because they are inexperienced and ignorant, but because they are vulnerable. It is our job as parents to keep children safe until they are developmentally able to keep themselves safe. We should not be trying to scare them into keeping themselves safe before they are developmentally ready to do so, though we should be teaching them while ensuring their safety.

The biggest problem with the attempts to frighten a child into preferred behaviors in the examples in the question is that the consequences will NOT actually happen - your child will quickly discover the ruse and will cease to trust your warnings.

It should be noted here that many legends, folk tales and fairy tales are designed to scare children into good behavior (think of cautionary tales like Red Riding Hood with its message of not trusting strangers), but they do so without including the child in the story - the scary thing happened to someone else and the child hearing the story learns without imagining himself in a real life scary situation, as he would if the parent threatened him with ghosts or the police.

It should also be noted that overprotecting a child can also cause anxiety (Psychology Today), so while you are keeping your child safe you should be explaining to him why his behavior is unsafe (as in the example in another answer of not going in the road because a car could bump you over and it would hurt).


There is nothing wrong with frightening the child, but only if you do so for the right reasons.

Right reason: it is dangerous to play on roads, so you can say:

Don't play on the road, or you may get hit by a car.

Wrong reason: you don't want you child to get dirty, so you can say:

Don't play in the garden, or the beast from the beneath the bungalow will drag you away.

Basically, if you lie to to your kids just to shut them up or control them, sooner or later they will work out what you are doing, and assume lying is ok. They may also develop unnecessary fears of bungalows, or the police, or whatever.

But there is nothing wrong in frightening them with the truth, in order to stop them from doing something dangerous.

Instead, be a bit resourceful. If I want my youngest to be quiet, I say "Let's play the silence game." The person who can stay silent the longest is the winner. There is diminishing returns from this one, but it can be adapted fairly easy to suit the occasion, and doesn't involve frightening or lying to your kids.

  • I'd say there is something wrong with frightening a child, because self-confidence is the one thing to teach them early. I don't mean to say that it is always wrong, but it is better avoided.
    – Guillaume
    Commented May 26, 2013 at 14:49
  • Self confidence is not the only thing to teach them early. Basic common sense, like "Don't play on busy roads" and "Don't stick your hand in the fire" need to be taught, and the only way to teach them effectively is by telling the truth, which by its nature is frightening. I agree though, that you shouldn't use fear just to shut a child up, or to stop misbehaving. Commented May 27, 2013 at 19:51
  • @Guillaume The key to the fright here tho is honesty. Sometimes life is scary.
    – monsto
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 4:33

This technique sounds like it is painting an inaccurate (and appalling) picture of reality for the child, one that will hardly equip them with matters in the real world when they come along. This technique surely creates unnecessary fears in the child's mind, which will impinge on its happiness, and wreck its self-confidence. It sounds like a despicable and terribly out-dated way of raising children. Even the Catholic Church has stopped the hellfire and brimstone way of spreading its message.


From your name, I understand that we are from the same country. The statements you mentioned is not just in your family but well prevalent across.

Vicky has very valid points. Just adding to it:

I have read about an article on this sometime back and it was mentioned that such fear that is ingrained in the childs mind (in the name of discipline) from such a small age is one prime reason why children, in comparison to westerner show a lesser amount of confidence/ (may be comparative) more fear in doing things and probably less adventurous. This is in general and there will surely be many exceptions

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    please link the sources. Commented May 22, 2013 at 5:02
  • I am unable to get the exact source, but it was from a Discourse from Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba
    – rajesh
    Commented May 22, 2013 at 5:12
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    @AnishaKaul You might also query at Cognitive Sciences site
    – rajesh
    Commented May 23, 2013 at 4:46

I think a key point that I didn't see being touched on is, what is wrong with telling them the truth about why you want them to do or not do something.

I agree with everyone that says, telling your kids a lie about a monster getting them or that the police will get them, will possibly lead your child to believe lying is okay to get what you want and also possibly lead the child to see that your threats don't ever actually happen and so there is no reason to listen to you.

However, telling your child that you would like them to be quiet because you have a headache and their loud noises are hurting you, should be quite acceptable. Telling your child to stop jumping on the bed or they will break the bed and in turn have no bed to sleep on, should be okay.

Your question is specifically asking if it's harmful in the long run and I think the only person that can truly answer that is a child psychologist. But it most likely depends on the child. Scaring your child with stories of monsters and ghosts could possibly encourage fears of the dark. Like someone else mentioned above, scaring your child with stories of the police, could cause them, to in fact be scared of the police and not see them as someone to go to when their in danger.

I think every parent needs to find what they think is best for their specific child and their family. The extent of your scaring will most likely determine if there will harmful effects on the child. If you feel you must use a scare technique to get your child to properly behave, keep it to a minimum with as little scare factor as needed and stick to things that your child shouldn't be associating good feelings with.

Also just going to add that there are cultures that have folk stories and tales that are part of tradition to tell young children that in fact scare them into doing something beneficial to the parent or guardian. Here is a link I found that gives some information about such folklore. https://rickunioninstitute.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/stories-to-scare-children-into-behaving/


To directly answer the title question: Yes.

What you have here is an adult searching for a system of control over the kid. It is plainly nothing more than a way to control the child. It has been said here taht once the kid wises up to this aspect, it will cease to be effective.

But, in addition to that, they will also have lost respect for the adult. They will not honor any requests and over time will grow to expect bloviated statements, even look for them. And as a teen (maybe sooner) will start seeing them even when they're not there.

There are much more effective ways to get a kid to do what you want. If this is your child, I'd say that you'd have to immediately turn over a new leaf. If they're old enough to hold a conversation on the subject (6+) then you might do just that, trade thoughts, then try to avoid doing it any more.

If, however, this isn't your kid, and you hope to use these posts to support a conversation with the actual parent, I would suggest that you don't. Parenting can be a touchy subject, and (even if they're family) holding an Evidentiary Hearing with someone to prove that their parenting needs improvement... well, that would just plain end badly. In this situation, the thing that works with my friends and family is a plain statement of my observations, followed up with opinion and clear statement of what I think the consequences will be, then ending with "I'm just trying to help". Then I never bring it up again.

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