Stop Giving Ultimatums and Do This Instead

Dad doing washing with son without ultimatums

What do we mean by giving ultimatums? They sound like this:

“If you don’t do your homework right now, I’m going to….”

  • Throw all your toys away
  • Cancel your birthday party
  • Stop you seeing your friends

Sound familiar? We’ve all been there. Those moments of pure frustration when you’ve run out ideas to get your child to do something. Out of desperation, you issue an ultimatum. But what do you do when that doesn’t work? 

Let’s look at the problem with giving ultimatums and what you can do instead.

Why are you giving ultimatums?

Ultimatums are a big final demand, “Do this, or else!” We use them when we run out of other ideas. 

They often follow this pattern:

  1. You ask your child nicely to do something:Please can you tidy up your bedroom.”
  2. You repeat the instruction: “I’m still waiting for you to get that bedroom tidy.”
  3. Then you offer a reward if they do it: “If you tidy up your bedroom, you can have extra screen time.”
  4. Now you shout: Get your bedroom tidy, RIGHT NOW!”
  5. Finally, you issue an ultimatum: “If you don’t tidy that bedroom, I’m cancelling football club for good!”

We tend to work up to giving ultimatums and use them when we feel angry and out of control. It’s easy to say things we don’t really mean because we feel frustrated. 

What are the problems with giving ultimatums?

Ultimatums do sometimes work. But when they do, it’s often based on a fear of the consequences. That can cause tension in our relationship with our children, and can even make them frightened of us. 

But often, when we give an ultimatum, we’re not actually prepared to go through with it. And children are quick to pick up on that. They know you’re not really going to cancel Christmas or throw away their precious toys, so they ignore the ultimatum. And then you’re stuck.

angry child is swearing at their parent

What can you do instead of giving ultimatums?

Removing ultimatums doesn’t mean letting your child get away with everything or allowing them to ignore your instructions. It actually helps you stay more in control of challenging situations and get the results you want.

Here are five practical alternatives that work. 

1: Give yourself time

When we feel angry, we often say things we don’t mean. We go to extremes. Giving yourself some time to calm down helps you think rationally about the situation.

Try taking a few deep breaths before speaking, go and make a cup of tea, or just walk away for a few moments until you feel back under control.

2: Break instructions down

Big instructions like “clean your bedroom” seem huge to children. Try breaking it down into small, easily achieved tasks instead. Your child might enjoy ticking the items off a list and you can try pictures for younger children. 

Instead of this:

  • Clean your bedroom

Try this:

  1. Make your bed
  2. Put your books on the shelf
  3. Put your toys in the basket

Keep it simple and praise them for each small step they achieve. 

3: Think about why this is happening

Challenging behaviour is your child’s way of communicating. Often they can’t put their feelings into words. If you’re getting a big reaction, think about why that might be happening. When your child is calm, talk to them about what you’ve noticed and ask them to help you find a solution.

4: Decide consequences in advance

Make it clear to your child what will happen if they choose not to do as you’ve asked. If you choose to give a consequence, it should be small, reasonable and time-limited. For example, they may lose 20 minutes of screen time rather than never get to play online again.

Make it as immediate as possible rather than expecting them to remember in the future.

5: Make it their choice

We can’t force our children to do things. If your child refuses to do as you’ve asked and is prepared to accept the consequences, that is their choice. Don’t give them lots of warnings or empty threats. 

Later, when they’re calm, talk about what happened and how it made you and them feel. You can encourage them to make the right choice next time. Keep focused on the positives rather than dwelling on problems.  

Further Help

It’s hard to get your children to listen and do as you ask without big reactions. If you’re struggling to communicate as a family, check out our useful free Support Talk video series called The Ask.

It covers the who, what, where, why and when of communication to help you have better conversations with your child.