Scare tactics have their place in teaching values. Those strategies are limited, but when you implement a healthy dose of worry in your child it will show them that they have to take care when going through life.
For instance, if you are trying to teach your child to put on their seat belt every time they ride in a car you can let them know that automobile accidents are the number one cause of death for those between the ages of 12 and 18. It is not an exaggeration and knowing that figure can stick in your teen’s head and lead them to making a better choice when they get into a car when you aren’t there to insist on their safety.
Unfortunately this doesn’t always work and there is a difference between instilling a healthy dose of reality using reasonable methods and flat out scaring a teen straight. You may find that scare tactics actually do the opposite, leading to more problems as they enter into their adult years.
What Science Has To Say
There are many examples of scare tactics being used by modern campaigns in an attempt to quell some risky behaviors. Public Service Announcements, particularly those done during the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s, used fear and disturbing imagery to get across anti-drug messages on television.
One example is the “When I Grow Up” PSA, showing young people having their dreams ruined by drug abuse, including a presumed overdose with a screaming woman attempting to wake the victim.
But do these tactics work? According to science, not really. The National Institute on Drug Abuse gave up the idea when their surveys showed that the majority of teens viewing these ads either didn’t believe those things could happen to them or found the advertisements amusing and over the top. Only those who were already committed to avoiding drugs found them to be a valuable reminder of why.
Another study by the West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources discovered that teens have a different filter when viewing scare tactic materials. They don’t experience or interpret graphic imagery as adults do, meaning they are not as affected. This could be because teens have not yet developed the necessary brain functions for properly assessing risks and consequences.
How Teens Feel About Your Scare Tactics
The short answer is that most do not respond well to scare tactics. We have seen above how those can backfire on a logical level but the problems go beyond that. When parents choose to use scare tactics instead of rational arguments it is possible that the teenager will lose respect for that parent.
It all comes down to trust. Teenagers, even troubled ones, have a desire to prove that they are capable of making their own choices and overcoming their own challenges. Scare tactics may be interpreted as them being lied to, or the parent not trusting them enough to make those decisions.
Reasonable VS Unreasonable Warnings
Don’t worry, you don’t have to totally discount using warnings as an actionable way of guiding your teen. The trick is to find the balance between reasonable and unreasonable warnings, so they will take them more seriously.
Let’s look at some of the common scare tactics that are used by adults in an attempt to curb their teen’s behavior. Keep in mind that some of these are extreme examples:
Marijuana is a gateway drug. This is a common saying but it isn’t necessarily true in the way most think. Marijuana use in young people has been shown to impact the addiction center of the brain and may be connected to nicotine and alcohol abuse in later years. However, teens are aware that marijuana is not a starting point to heroin addiction, nor does it always have severe consequences. A better approach is to be honest about those risks, such as possible developmental issues in the brain, or even just the legal risk associated with possession.
You can overdose on any substance. Again, overdose is possible with many drugs. But teens are aware that several don’t come with that particular risk, such as marijuana or some club drugs. Attempting to use this scare tactic can make a teenager disregard genuine warnings about drug abuse.
Drinking leads to sexual assault. Not only is this not necessarily a true statement, it is victim blaming to those who do face sexual assault, both in situations where alcohol was a factor and those where it was not. A better warning would be to alert them to the numbers of sexual assaults in the US and to teach them how to protect themselves as much as possible, while making it clear that you will always support them should something horrible happen.
Sex is always unsafe. The internet offers open access to information on sex, as well as the constant messages from media, both positive and negative. We all know that sex is not in and of itself unsafe and that many methods exist to allow for safe sex. Your teen is almost certainly aware of condom and birth control use, as well as the risk of disease and pregnancy. Giving them genuine facts about those risks, as well as letting them know of the emotional consequences of having sex too early, will be more beneficial.
Traveling leads to kidnapping/mugging/death. Many teens have plans to travel abroad after high school so they might see the world before entering college. While there are many warnings you could give to help them do so safely, automatically assuming the worst could make them less careful purely in an attempt to prove you wrong. Instead, try giving them resources such as the embassy website for that given country, connecting with locals and expats through online communities and getting a genuine look at what the area is like, where to avoid and what can be done in case of an emergency.
Find out more about this and other important parenting and teen topics at Sundance Canyon Academy.