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How to Deal with Misbehaving Kids

The cure for “empty threat syndrome.”

Recently, I was at dinner with two other families. Another guest’s nine-year-old son, Sean*, was provoking his 12-year-old sister, Madeline*, taunting her, getting in her space. The sister responded with a screechy “I HATE YOU!!”

What ensued was painful to watch, but highly predictable.

The kids’ dad, clearly embarrassed by their behavior, says, “Both of you, knock it off, right now!”

Madeline: “But I didn’t DO anything.”

Dad: “It’s not okay to yell ‘I hate you’ to your brother.”

Madeline, half screaming, half whining: “He was BUGGING me!”

Dad: “If you guys can’t get along, we are going to go home. I mean it. This behavior is unacceptable.”

Dad turns back to the rest of the adults and rolls his eyes. We chuckle a little. We’ve all been there.

It seems harmless to put a big consequence out there, like threatening to leave a party the kids are enjoying. Odds are, they’ll shape up so they can stay.

But not two minutes later, the brother is at it again, steering his scooter too close to his sister and her friend. “GO AWAY! You’re such an IDIOT!” she screams with emotion that only comes when someone is pushing your buttons.

Dad assesses the situation; the host is starting to serve dinner. There is no way he is going to make good on his threat to leave right now. What should he do?

We all make empty threats sometimes, especially in the heat of the moment, hoping to coerce better behavior out of our kids. But there are several problems with threatening to do something and then not following through on it.

Most obviously, empty threats weaken our influence. Kids are smart; once they know that we are unlikely to follow-through on a threatened consequence, our words have much less meaning. This is especially true in certain situations, like being in public or at a party, where kids know it’s more likely that we parents WON’T follow through. So they learn to not pay much attention to those threats at all.

This means that we, the parents, aren’t fully in charge—and, consciously or unconsciously, this makes our children insecure. Kids need someone who has been around the block a few times to be in charge. They need structure and rules—or they start to feel insecure.

But there may be an even bigger problem: It lacks integrity when we say we are going to do something hard, then don’t do it. Our children will behave like we do, especially as they grow into teenagers and adults. When they face a challenge, do we want them to tell everyone that they are going to do the hard thing, then pretend like they never said they would do it? Of course not, but we can only expect them to have as much integrity (and commitment, and courage) as we have.

Fortunately, there are much more effective ways to deal with our children’s undesirable behavior. Click here to see my Greater Good Science post that provides a step-by-step plan.

*Names have been changed.