I have a few small children, the oldest of whom is six years old, who can be quite difficult. My husband often threatens them, jokingly, with all sorts of physical punishments for their behavior, some mild and others outrageous. He says it is a harmless way to let off some of his stress. I am concerned about the effects of this on their psychological development. I know how literal little kids are, and I see the expressions on their faces—a mix of confusion and fear. I would love to get a professional perspective.
I am concerned by both the threats themselves and your husband’s rationalization. There are at least two perspectives to every human interaction. From your husband’s perspective, his jokes are harmless. In addition, he gains from these interactions by releasing stress. From your kids’ perspectives, however, the implications can be quite negative and very significant.
As you mention, children can be literal. Humor is an important characteristic for children to develop. We don’t want to always be completely serious with children; we do want them to learn to differentiate between seriousness and lighthearted playfulness. Nonetheless, it must be completely clear to kids when something is said as a joke. Depending on age, maturity level, and other factors, children discern seriousness from jocularity in different ways and on different levels.
When a child is presented with threats, though meant jokingly, there are a number of problems that can arise. When these threats are being made by an authority figure—and especially by a parent with complete control over their lives—significant harm can be done. Fear, anxiety, low self-esteem, and other issues can arise from the inability to properly recognize the playful nature of a threat.
Another major issue that can arise from your husband’s flippant threats is the mixed messages that your children may be receiving. If your husband sometimes threatens them and follows through on his threats, but other times does not, this can cause much confusion in young children. This, in and of itself, can cause fear and anxiety. Not knowing how to interpret a parent’s actions—and not knowing how to react—can be extremely anxiety-provoking. This can lead to trouble in many areas, including fears, anxiety, and relationship issues.
Young children don’t typically recognize that adults have their own needs. Egocentric by nature, younger children will generally assume that everything that is done relates directly to them. (This is part of the reason that kids often blame themselves for their parents’ separation and divorce.) As such, it is imperative that we be sensitive to the messages that we may be giving to our children.
It seems that your husband isn’t suggesting that the kids understand that he is joking. Rather, he appears to be suggesting that his threats serve his own purposes. As long as his focus is on his own needs, it can be very difficult for your husband to recognize any impact that his actions are having on the kids—even if he tries to pay attention to their needs as well.
Another possibility is that your husband’s threats are more serious and/or thoughtlessly made—but, after the fact, your husband excuses his behavior by suggesting that they were purposeful and harmless. If so, he needs to acknowledge this, and work on changing his reactions to stress, annoyance, and anger. If there is any chance that threats are being taken seriously by your children, it’s important that your husband recognize this and change his behavior accordingly.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
Brooklyn, NY | Far Rockaway, NY
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317