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Moving beyond threats (ages 6 to 8)

Why it happens

Sometimes an evil alien invades my body, pushing me to commit regrettable acts. I know this because last week I howled at my son Matthew: "If you don't keep the cedar shavings off the floor, the hamsters will have to go!" This broke his heart. It did nothing to clean up the cedar shavings.

Like most parents, when I'm feeling powerless or exasperated, I sometimes pepper my two sons with threats. I picture Matthew's room teeming with hamsters and sawdust, and my frustration erupts in cliches: Clean it up or...or...or else! There's got to be a better way.

There is. Although threats may be one of the most frequently used weapons in your discipline arsenal, they're hardly an effective or loving way to spur action or teach responsibility. Yet from time to time, we all fall back on threats, often absurd ones that leave us feeling foolish and the problem unresolved.

Getting out of the threat rut isn't easy. There are some creative alternatives, though. When you find yourself tempted to tyrannize, these six strategies may help turn threatening moments into nurturing ones.

What to do

Give choices. The biggest problem with threats is that they tatter self-esteem and inspire fear or rebellion. "Threats are a message of distrust," says Adele Faber, author of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. "Your child hears, 'You can't be trusted to control yourself, so I'm going to control you.'"

Giving choices, on the other hand, puts your grade-schooler in charge, preventing fruitless and stressful stalemates. Instead of saying, "If you don't turn your boom box down, I'll take it away," say, "Hey, that hurts my ears. So would you rather listen to something a little less raucous, or take it in your room?" Participating in this type of decision-making teaches her to think for herself and to assume responsibility for her actions. Talk to your grade-schooler and say, "We have a problem. How can we solve it?" That way, the situation becomes you and your grade-schooler against a problem, instead of you against your grade-schooler.

Follow through. Another drawback of using threats is that they're often too extreme or inconvenient and therefore impossible to execute. "If you can't follow through," says St. Louis family therapist Evonne Weinhaus, coauthor of Stop Struggling With Your Child, "you're going to appear spineless, and your kid will trample you."

Suppose that night after night your grade-schooler can't tear herself away from her neighborhood buddies to come in for dinner. You tell her, "If you're late for dinner again, you can't play outside tomorrow night!" Chances are she won't take you seriously, and the nightly struggle will continue unabated. Instead, change your behavior. Say: "I'm going to close the kitchen at 6:30, so if you get hungry later, you'll have to eat your dinner cold." That's something you can follow through on, and when you do, she'll probably be at the table on time — at least for a week or two afterward.

Reverse a threat. Threats have a way of sneaking up on you. Often the words are already out of your mouth before you realize how ridiculous they sound. When this happens, there's nothing wrong with rewinding the tape and trying again. Imagine, for instance, you're grocery shopping when your grade-schooler starts throwing junk-food item after junk-food item in the cart, ignoring your requests to stop. Finally, you get so frustrated that you threaten to make her leave and sit in the car alone.

Think better of resorting to this kind of threat. If it's too late, tell your grade-schooler, "I made a mistake. If you can't follow my rules in the store, I better take you home where someone can watch you while I shop, and I'll give you a chance to try again soon." This response — to replace a hollow threat with a solution that gives your child a second chance — is a sensible approach. After all, every parent blows it once in a while. The important thing is to go back and talk about what happened. Use it as a learning opportunity between you and your grade-schooler.

Set clear expectations. Grocery trips are, of course, a classic stress-builder for parents, and threats fill the aisles like soup cans. To avoid this scenario, prepare your grade-schooler before you head to the store. Tell her how you expect her to behave. Explain, for instance, that you'd like her to help you track down the items you need. When you arrive at the store, ask her what you'd like her to do. When she answers, "Help you find things," congratulate her on her good memory. Then ask her to find an item or two in each aisle. This makes shopping seem like a treasure hunt and gives the errand a positive spin from the get-go.

Of course, it doesn't always work that way. You get to the store, and not only does your shopping companion refuse to help you find things, but she also has a fit when you won't buy the sugary cereal she's been begging for. What then? On the way there, when you tell your grade-schooler how you expect her to behave, also explain what'll happen if she doesn't cooperate. Tell her, "If you help me find the things we need, you can pick the cereal you like. If you don't help me, we'll have to go home without any cereal." If your grade-schooler still refuses to cooperate, stand firm and invoke the consequence you've talked about.

Keep cool, think positive. Staying calm and confident might sound like a tall order, but it can make a big difference. One reason threats often fail to control your grade-schooler is that they whip up emotions rather than defuse them. When Jennifer Chin-Alfers and Jay Alfers of Novi, Mich., used threats to discipline their daughter, Andi, 6, and son, Ian, 4, for instance, the friction only got worse. "If I asked them to do something and they didn't do it, I'd start yelling," Jay says. "Or we'd threaten to take away a privilege, like being with friends. But then a lot of the time we wouldn't follow through."

Your grade-schooler is more apt to learn how to behave if you give her constant, positive reinforcement. So consider using a reward system to help her overcome a major challenge. If she's in and out of bed like a jack-in-the-box every evening, for instance, put a star on a special calendar for each night that she stays put. When she's racked up a week's worth of stars, reward her with a small toy or a special outing. She may still struggle with sleeping alone, but this method is more likely to lead to success than you ranting and raving.

Reconsider the situation. As we all know, sometimes the best-laid plans fail miserably — and in that case, maybe it's your expectation, not your grade-schooler's behavior, that's out of line. You may need to examine what you're asking of her. If she's been cooped up all day and really needs a chance to unwind, for instance, it's not a good idea to take her to a restaurant where she has to sit still.

So maybe a mother who finds herself in a sea of hamster sawdust needs to rethink the menagerie instead of making threats. Is it possible for my son Matthew to take care of his cat, his rabbit, his turtle, and his eight hamsters without feeling overwhelmed? Well, once we both talked about it, Matthew and I agreed that maybe a pared-down household would be more fun than a grouchy Mama shouting, "Or else!"

And if I do threaten now and then, I try to cut myself some slack — after all, every parent goes over the top occasionally. It isn't one or two threats but your everyday approach to your grade-schooler that matters most. If you're always on a tirade, always critical, you're wasting chances to have gratifying interactions with her. You're faced with many challenges as a parent, but if you handle them gracefully, the majority of your interactions with your child will be positive ones.

Before a threat escapes your lips, click here to find a better alternative.

To share your thoughts and concerns about your child's behavior problems with other parents, see our bulletin boards.

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