Using Scare Tactics to Discipline Kids: a lesson learned from the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland

As a six year old boy, I remember being so scared of the haunted mansion at Disneyland.  The ride began as a group of people walked into a large room and listened to a narrator tell us what we were in for.  As I remember, the narrator had a deep, spooky voice and he stated we were welcome to come in, but we would never get out.  Then suddenly the lights would go out.  Everyone would hear a scream and then a flash of light above  would reveal a hologram of someone hung by the rafters.  What a frightening thing for a little kid to see.  I was no exception.  The first few times I went on that ride, I had to close my eyes to keep from getting too scared.

As the years went by however, each time I visited Disneyland, I knew what to expect from the Haunted Mansion.  I knew that at the end of the ride I would come out alive and undamaged.  So eventually the ride lost its frightening effect and actually became comical rather than scary.  The Haunted Mansion is now one of my favorite rides at Disneyland.

As parents we are sometimes like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.  We may make a lot of noise yelling, screaming, or even threatening our kids when they disobey us.  Then, if we see an immediate change in our kids, we may start to believe that these techniques really work in order to discipline our kids and get them to do what we ask them to do.

In truth, when our kids are small they may react to our scare tactics by changing their behaviors in the short term because they feel scared and powerless.  However, like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, as our kids start to get older and wiser, the techniques of yelling, screaming, and threatening may start to lose their effect.  Some kids learn to turn down the parental volume knob until the scary parts pass.  Other kids may find it comical to see just how frustrated they can make their parents.

At this point parents can start to feel powerless and sometimes even hopeless.  They may feel like there is nothing they can do to get their kids to mind them.  Beyond the yelling, screaming, and threatening, often these parents have also tried rewarding, taking things away, grounding, and even spanking, but nothing seems to work for their kids.  In fact, these parents frequently report that these disciplining techniques make things worse.

So what is the alternative to yelling, screaming, and threatening?  One of the most effective tools I have found to get kids to do things they should do is to let them know what I will do, rather then tell them what they will do.  Parents can let their kids know what they will do by using enforceable statements.  Here are a few examples of enforceable statements:

For younger kids:

“You’re welcome to eat breakfast with us as soon as your room is clean.”

“Just pick up the toys you want to keep and I will take care of the rest.”

For older kids:

“I’ll be glad to log you on to the computer so you can get on to Facebook when your chores are done.”

“You may have cell phone service as long as it doesn’t create a problem for anyone.”

“I will be happy to call the phone company and get your cell phone turned back on as soon as the extra charges for last month have been paid.”

When enforceable statements are said with loving smiles, rather than frustrated glares, parents soon realize how powerful these statements can be.  Many parents find that when they tell their kids what they as parents will do, the parents have no need to use their old techniques of yelling, screaming, or threatening to get their kids to change their behaviors.

Thanks for reading.


By Shiloh Lundahl, LCSW

Child and Family Therapist in Mesa and Gilbert, Arizona