child with marker needs a warning vs. threat
Learning at Home

Threat vs. Warning: How to Talk to Your Boundary Pushing Wild Child

My middle child is the boundary-pushing wild child in our home. He is now three and still VERY challenging some days, but the year he was two? Yeah, every day was H-A-R-D. Emotional regulation? Not a bit of it. Impulse control? Practically nonexistent. I don’t want to be too hard on the little friend, because he has the sweetest heart and he’s the best cuddler. Parenting him because much easier when I learned about giving a threat vs. warning him.

It’s a subtle difference in terms of communication differences, but WOW it really packs a punch. Keep reading to get the details and change your power dynamic today.

Threat vs. Warning

So what’s the difference between a threat and a warning?

  • Threats are said in a moment of panic and frustration, and in an attempt to manipulate your child’s behavior. Warnings are planned and calm.
  • Threats are often empty. Warnings are executed immediately.
  • Threats sometimes sound sarcastic or pleading, and often with a raised voice. Warnings are stated neutrally, as if to lovingly keep a child from experiencing an unwanted consequence.
  • Threats are often overkill, making them difficult to follow up on. Warnings are carefully planned and reasonable for the child’s developmental stage. 

In case you’re thinking, “Yes, that’s nothing I don’t already know. But how do I change?” Not to worry – I’ll get to that part!

cuddling in the kitchen

Why do kids need consequences?

Bad choices in life lead to painful consequences. Parenting is all about preparing your child for life outside the home. We want them to be independent someday!

Because life has consequences!

In order to be prepared for age 18, kids need to understand that when you do stupid stuff, life will give you consequences even when Mom and Dad aren’t around. For example, if you refuse to tie your shoe, you’re going to probably trip at some point. If you don’t use protection, an unplanned pregnancy will happen. Choices have consequences, so you better teach them now!

You can receive a consequence and still feel loved and nurtured.

The best thing about consequences is that you can execute a consequence and still convey love and support. If there’s no anger in the communication and the consequence is reasonable, the child can still have a hug and open conversation.

For example: let’s say the consequence is loss of t.v. time for the day. You can keep the consequence and give the child a hug and listening ear when they are upset about it. It sounds like this:

Kiddo: But it’s not fair! I don’t wanna play with my toys instead! I want the t.v.!

Mama: I know you’re sad that you don’t get to watch tv today. I wish you would have tidied up your mess like I asked. Do you need a hug?

threat vs warning - mom and baby having a hug after a consequence given

Consequences offer security and comfort.

A child who experiences a consequence never LIKES it. But deep down, they know their parents are strong enough to handle them on their worst days. It’s okay for the child to fall apart, because they know their parent won’t break down with them.

It’s simple: 1 Thoughtful Warning —-> Misbehavior —-> Consequence —-> Hug and Recap

So why do we make so complicated? Because we don’t really want to issue the consequence. We want them to be strong enough to make a good choice and avoid it. Sigh. We give them more and more opportunities to avoid the consequence, and every time we issue an additional threat, our words hold less power each time.

Rules and boundaries have a purpose.

Boundaries and rules are there for a reason, and always will be. Some parents don’t want to break their child’s spirit, and I get that. But boundaries are for safety, quality relationships, and a happy future.

However, there’s no need to have pointless rules, because then you’re communicating that rules can be arbitrary.

  • We keep our mouths closed at meal time because we respect others and don’t want to gross them out.
  • We limit t.v. time because t.v. overload makes us naughty and not very creative.
  • We don’t hit because it’s dangerous.
  • We don’t throw paper planes in the house because…wait, that rule doesn’t make sense!

Why do kids need warnings vs threats?

Why not just surprise them when they are being ridiculous, especially if they’ve already been taught this lesson in the past?

Because warnings are fair.

Threat vs. warning: one is fair, and the other isn’t.

It’s not fair to execute a consequence without fair and timely warning and a chance to modify behavior. If you believe a consequence is needed, always give the child a chance to straighten up in that same moment.

This applies even to (some) more impulsive teenagers, or older kids who should know better. We all need reminders.

little girl in a timeout chair - threat vs. warning

Is your kiddo struggling with transition times? You know, melts down at every meal time, dressing time, and the end of every play session? Read how one simple classroom hack from Amazon helped!

Why Threatening Doesn’t Work

It may seem like threat vs. warning is just a matter of semantics, but it’s not. These two words aren’t synonyms. Here is why threatening kids doesn’t work, and they make you exhausted, too!

Kids can tell you don’t mean it.

Yup, your kids have gotten you figured out. They know you aren’t serious because:

  1. Your threat sounds absurd: “I’m gonna leave you on the side of this road!” Unless your child is about two years old, they know you’re full of it.
  2. They’ve figured out that when Mama uses that tone of voice, she never follows through. Gulp.

They’re testing you.

Threats tend to be part of a bigger conversation in which you’re basically pleading with your kid to straighten up. They get about a million reminders. Since it takes forever to get to the punishment, half the fun is figuring out how long it will take to get there.

The surest way to stop this sort of nonsense? Be consistent, firm, and clear. Then, they won’t have to wonder anymore.

little boy with angry face - parents often give repeated, hollow threats

How Threats Sound in a Conversation with Kids

I used to be so guilty of issuing a threat vs. warning my child. I do much better now, unless I’m having a hard day and reverting back to old habits.

While my threats did eventually lead to a consequence, my little Chicken Patty loved to push me to the breaking point first. Here’s how it sounded.

Pleading with Chicken Patty, Age 2.5

Chicken Patty, stop it.

I asked you to stop.

You’re about to be in trouble.

What did I tell you?

If you do that again, you’re going to leave the table.

Chicken Patty! Why did you do that again!

Do you want to leave the table? Okay then, stop it. 

(Why haven’t I executed the consequence, roughly 4 lines back? Because 1) I didn’t have a consequence planned. 2) I was trying to enjoy my meal, and didn’t want to have to stop it to deal with the behavior. 3) I’m also testing him at this point – if I give him enough threats, will he stop? But guess who is winning?)

Okay, now he does it again. I finally execute the punishment, by picking him up and physically removing him from the table and putting him in a timeout. Now he’s completely shocked I did something. I’m exhausted because it took us a full 6-7 minutes of negotiating to reach this point.

little girl with her mouth on her bowl using bad manners at the dinner table, despite multiple threats

How a Warning Sounds in a Conversation with Kids

I start by noticing the bad behavior. In this case, let’s pretend it’s jumping on the couch during t.v. time. I quickly make a plan in my head about what the consequence will be when Chicken Patty (inevitably, at first) ignores my request. Then it goes like this:

Stop it, please. (Kind, gentle request)

If you do that again, I’m turning off the t.v.

Execute immediately

Now, I knew the meltdown was coming. Dealing with him crying and throwing a fit for 15 minutes wouldn’t be fun. But you know what? The next time, he listened better.

He’s three now, and it still comes and goes and ebbs and flows. Some weeks are hard and others are easy. But when he’s really testing me a lot? I know exactly what to do to right the ship. We can get back on track just as soon as I decide it’s time.

Yup, we make use of the t.v. at our house! Here are my favorite educational preschool, toddler, and elementary school kid shows.

Practical Tips to Stop Threatening and Start Warning

There isn’t anything easy about this transition. It’s so easy to say and really difficult to do. If you’re having a hard time tightening up your conversations, try these tips.

Plan out some consequences for any situation.

mom working on a plan with a pencil and child hugging her

During your free time, jot down some good consequences. Think of ones that might work for home, on a car ride, after school, at church, and more. One thing to consider is that consequences for little bitty kids work best when they’re immediate.

Telling a three-year-old in the middle of the morning that afternoon t.v. time will be cancelled 1) is un-motivating, and 2) will probably result in continued bad behavior between now and then.

Here are some ideas:

  • Turning off the t.v.
  • Taking away the toy
  • Time away from the group until ready to play nice again
  • Allowing him to be cold for 5-10 minutes when he refuses to put on a coat
  • Being required to clean up his own messes before the next fun activity (see below)
  • Not being allowed to go outside until he willingly and helpfully puts on his shoes.

One time during nap, my son chose to make a mess of his room rather than lie in his bed. I gave him one warning about it, but then allowed him to play and make a mess until the end of nap time. When he woke up, I let him know that he’d have to clean up his mess before we could go outside.

He didn’t do a great job, but he did a fairly appropriate job for a three-year-old, and he obviously tried his best. It took him a full 10 minutes. Mission accomplished!

Need help with a messy kid who won’t clean up? Try this solution! It works for us 🙂

Stop what else you’re doing and eliminate distractions.

Okay, so they’re being naughty. Before you even scold them, or remind them even once, look to ultimate consequence and plan for them to fail at heeding your warning. Kids do that, and it’s best to be ready for it. That means:

Put down the phone or dry the dish water off your hands. Leave the room for a second if necessary to think and make a plan, assuming it’s not an immediate safety issue.

hugging mother and son - threat vs. warning

Realize that sometimes consequences suck for everyone.

The hardest part about giving a consequence is that sometimes it makes life harder for the parent, too. Here’s a great article about a Mom who found herself issuing empty threats for exactly that reason.

Take that moment to make peace with the fact that good parenting is just plain HARD and no fun sometimes. Taking away tv time often means we have to give up our little moments of freedom. Ugh.

Don’t issue a consequence if you’re not prepared to follow through.

Calm your spirit.

Okay, before the poop hits the fan, just mentally, emotionally, and spiritually prepare yourself. Take a deep breath, say a little prayer if that’s what you do, and (if you can spare a second) practice your tone in silence. You should sound calm, neutral, and firm. Do not plead with your child. Do not yell to get their attention. Just say the thing calmly: “I asked you once to stop throwing the ball in the living room. If you do it again, I’m taking the ball away for the rest of today.”

pinterest pin - threat vs. warning

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