When threats don’t work
So, what if your kid doesn’t respond to threats?
I know… MOST do.
But, not all.
Yes, even if you do it properly.
Even if you follow through EVERY TIME.
And even if you pick the right threats.
It’s a personality thing. Some kids are BORN that way.
I recently came across this article, Try threat-based parenting… or else,by Alexandra Samuel. It was this article that actually got me thinking about this topic. (It is a great article by the way. And hilarious. I recommend it.) And, I agree with the very wise Ms. Samuel. She makes some very creative and wise parenting suggestions. And these strategies work… with MOST kids.
Most, but not all.
I have one child who responds with very appropriate grudging compliance to all the sorts of everyday threats we parents throw over our shoulder all day long.
“If your room isn’t clean, you aren’t having a friend over.”
“If I hear any more fighting back there, I’m going to pull this car over, and NO ONE is getting ice cream!”
And then there is my other child…
This is the child who has been more difficult from the day he was born (a cesarean of course). This is the one who had acid reflux as a new baby and cried all the time. This is the one who is the root cause of sibling conflicts 97%. This is the one who always needs to have everything just exactly right or he will melt down, and he will take everyone with him.
In the beginning, I tried to parent him in a “normal” way – the way I had been raised. I set limits, made threats, delivered consequences. And while this worked for my daughter, it never seemed to go the way I wanted or intended it to go with my son.
The threat never seemed to deliver the desired result. A standoff would ensue. I’d find myself locked in a battle of wills. And if I forced an issue, he would run off and hide – for like an hour – and we really couldn’t find him.
This is the kid who will look right back at me, and my threat, and say in a deadly serious voice, “I don’t care what you do.” And he means it. Gulp…
That little whoosh you just felt – that was your power, flying out the window. This is NOT a good feeling. This is a scary feeling. A vulnerable feeling.
When he was around four, and our battles were becoming epic – and more frequent – I realized that the way I was parenting my son simply wasn’t working. I did some research and some reading about more difficult kids.
- The Kadzin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child by Alan Kazdin
- The Defiant Child by Douglas A. Riley
- Your Defiant Child — 8 Steps to Better Behavior by Russell A. Barkley and Christine M. Benton
And I pretty quickly discovered that his behavior was not all that unique. There are a lot of kids like him… kids whose hackles go up when they are backed into a corner, and instead of submitting, they fight. Kids who don’t respond well to threats.
Kids who need a different style of parenting.
Here’s what I learned:
1 . Don’t back these kids into a corner.
They are the turn and fight kind. Not the turn and submit kind. It’s just who they are. It’s in their blood. And it isn’t going to change.
Try hard NOT to get yourself into situations where you are going to go head to head with your child. Because you will lose. With these kids, even if you “win,” you lose. You will end up feeling powerless every time. And engaging in these battles of wills reinforces this dynamic in your relationship with your child. Don’t give your child the opportunity to rob you of your power and your leverage. Don’t let them realize that they CAN.
On the flip side of this – and yes, there is a flip side – ok, so you have a fighter. This is not a bad thing. It is a mark of a strong personality – someone who would rather face discomfort or punishment than give in. Under the right circumstances, those are admirable and desirable qualities. Those are annoying child qualities that can turn into positive and powerful adult qualities.
2. DO use incentives.
Your leverage with these kids lies with incentives. These kids will not be pushed into compliance. But, they can be lured. These children are much, MUCH more responsive to the lure of reward than they are to the threat of punishment. (Most people are more risk averse than reward seeking, but with these guys, it’s the polar opposite.)
So, incentive is one of your best tools. And don’t feel bad about using it. This does NOT make you are not a bad parent. You are not “giving in.” You are using your head. When something doesn’t work, time and time again, stop fucking doing it!!
I know, there are those looks from other parents, looks that convey, well, it works for my child, in a way that implies – what’s wrong with you and your child. Fuck them. They are evil, and what they think doesn’t matter. And they don’t know your child.
3. DO use natural consequences.
My son is stubborn and perverse. These qualities are embedded in his personality. I won’t say it isn’t frustrating.
I can give him the best advice in the world, but he’s has to learn things for himself.
“The ornaments are really fragile. If you squeeze them, they will break.”
He squeezes it. “Oh, yeah, they do break.”
Yes. Yes, they do.
“That knife is really sharp. If you cut that way, you could cut your finger.”
He tests the blade with a finger, cutting himself.
“Oh! It is sharp! I cut myself.”
Yes. Yes you did.
I happen to love natural consequences – when they work. They are so damn practical, and they largely remove the burden of parenting from my shoulders for a couple of minutes.
“If you touch the pan you are going to get burned.”
“If you eat that whole bowl of cherries, you are going to get a stomach ache.”
”If you don’t bring a jacket, you’re going to get cold.” (This is especially good if I will not be around to to hear my child whine when he DOES get cold.)
Cautionary Note: just be sure that the “natural consequence” lands on the correct shoulders. If you give up your own jacket later, and you are the one who freezes, while Little Mr. I-Don’t-Need-A-Jacket is nice and cosy bundled inside the warmth you had intended for yourself – that is not a natural consequence. That is successful manipulation.
Of course, natural consequences don’t always work.
“If you walk on the railing and slip, you will fall 40 feet and die.”
“If you don’t put on your seat belt and we crash, you will go flying through the windshield.”
But when the opportunity is there – take it. And when these moments occur, I’m careful not to say, “I told you so,” or “See? What did I say?” Somehow, with my son, these little jabs undermine the learning.
4. Emphasize the positive – no matter how trivial.
In the same way that these kids are more responsive to incentives than threats, they are more responsive to positive feedback than criticism and correction. Instead of always pointing out what these guys are doing wrong (and sometimes it feels like they are doing everything wrong), look for every opportunity you can find to “catch” them when they are doing something right (even it it is the tiniest little thing). Unless real harm is being done, turn a bit of a blind eye to a good portion of all the not-so-great behavior, and go overboard in your enthusiastic response to every positive behavior you see.
I think this is one of the harder skills for parents to learn. It feels like you are ignoring all the things they are doing wrong. But this is how you reset your relationship with your child and shift it to a more positive place. These kids really do want to please. Sometimes it seems like they just don’t know how.
5. Parent the kid you have – not the one you wish you had.
There are better parents, and worse parents, for sure. It does not follow, however, that better parents have easier children. That, my friends, is luck. Good old-fashioned luck.
What makes the better parents “better,” is that they parent the kid they have, not the one they wish they had, or the one their neighbor has. It doesn’t matter what works for Jeffrey next door. If it doesn’t work for your child, then let it go.
Russell Barkley, author of Your Defiant Child – 8 Steps to Better Behavior, said, “The children who need love the most will always ask for it in the most unloving ways.”
This quote has served as something of a guiding light for me in my tougher parenting moments with my son.
My son is 13 now. He is still the more difficult of my two children, but today I can say we have a strong positive relationship. He has become so much more flexible and adaptable and less reactive when things don’t go the way he would like them to go.