01/05/2009 10:28 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Empty Threats - How Bad?

Ah, empty threats. They're like chocolate ice cream in the morning. We know we shouldn't, but then it just... happens. The following How Bad? question is from a dad who says he has a "friend" with an empty threat problem...

While *I* am perfect, I have a "friend" who has the habit of making threats that there is no way I, er, I mean he would ever follow through on. Like "if you don't stop it right this instant, I'll stop the car, let you out, and you can walk home." This to a four-year-old, miles from home. Or, "Okay, that's it -- we're getting rid of the TV!" Or the most common one, "If you don't pick up these toys, I will, and I'll throw them in the rubbish!"

Sounds familiar? A favourite from my personal empty-threat library is: "I'm going to turn this car around right now and we won't see your friends today!" I mean really. Like I'm going to barrel through excruciating city traffic twice on one weekend day in the name of honest parenting. Even my four-year-old knows that's not going to happen.

And on the other side, sometimes I fear making an empty threat so much that I follow through on something totally stupid, just so I won't have made an empty threat. That makes me feel like an even worse parent.

How bad are empty threats? To find out I called a How Bad? Parental Advisor, Robert Schachter, a New York City-based psychologist and faculty member of Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

"It's not a question of good or bad, it's a question of will it work or not?" Well, will it? Or, rather (since we know it won't work) when will the empty threats stop working? Pretty fast, says Dr. Schachter. But what if a child won't pick up her toys and you are tired of being her maid? And you've already done the empty-threat thing a few times so now she knows you won't actually throw out the toys? Just speaking hypothetically -- is there hope? Yes! It turns out you can recover from chronic empty-threatening.

Try some new moves, says Dr. Schachter, who establishes that for his advice to work, we are pre-supposing that the little girl in question, "is normally cooperative, obedient and of sweet disposition, and not constantly irritable, throwing temper tantrums or being oppositional." Assuming all of that (and you can, can't you?), "The object is to help her feel competent and good about herself," Schachter says. Try this:

Make it a game. Four-year-olds like to be engaged. Help her pick up and make it a race or a game like "Now let's pick up everything pink!" Or sing a clean-up song which conditions her to start cleaning up when you start singing it. If she co-operates a few times with you, she will most likely learn to clean up by herself.

Time her. Use a stopwatch to see "how fast" she can put the toys away. If she beats yesterday's time, she gets a treat. If she doesn't beat yesterday's time, she can still get a runner up treat for trying.

Don't fight, finesse. "Don't make this about a power struggle," says Dr. Schachter, "it is about distraction and deceit... I mean finesse."

So what about the threats? How bad are they? "Keep in mind that the research shows that positive reinforcement works better than negative," Dr. Schachter says. "Remember that you love your child and that the object is to get her or him to pick up toys, not to experience a trauma." Good point.

"So if you do still threaten," Dr. Schachter continues, "Pick consequences that fit the crime, and the consequence should occur within a short time frame of the offense. If the kid doesn't pick up toys at 2:00 PM, don't refuse to give dessert at 6:00 PM. You can set limits, but do so with a clear structure and purpose in mind. For example, if she is watching TV instead of cleaning up, cheerily turn off the TV and say, "Come on, let's put your toys away and we'll get that TV right back on. Come on, Mummy will help. Hurry, hurry the program is about to start." After she puts them away, make a big deal about how grown-up and wonderful she is."

Do you make empty threats? Comment below with your own How Bad?

Sabrina Weill is editor-in-chief of