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Commentary: Will leaving stubborn children behind teach them a lesson?

Instilling fear in a child reluctant to follow their parents could teach them to comply, but at a cost, says clinical psychologist Dr Cherie Chan of The Other Clinic.

Commentary: Will leaving stubborn children behind teach them a lesson?

Using fear-based tactics such as walking away from the child may result in them learning that the world is a dangerous place. (Photo: iStock/Sinenkiy)

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SINGAPORE: “If you don’t come along, I will leave you behind!”

“If you don’t move now, I will ask the police to catch you!”

“Bye bye! See you later, we are going now!”

Do these threats sound familiar to you? In Singapore, we heard them throughout our childhoods. Whether at the toy store or the playground, our parents or guardians would shout at us to move along, or risk getting left behind.

In a TikTok clip that went viral earlier in November, a father “abandoned” his son at the National Library. The boy was engrossed with an exhibit and didn’t want to leave, so his parents snuck out and hid nearby.

The boy was shown outside the building, visibly searching for his parents, before breaking into a relieved smile once he spotted them.

The clip has been divisive online, with some netizens saying it’s an effective way of teaching the child a lesson, and others saying it is bad parenting.


Threatening to leave your child behind is a common parenting tactic, and an understandable one when our daily schedules are so packed. One missed timing can lead to a cascade of delays down the line.

When using such a method, it is imperative to understand the intention of the action. When leaving a child behind or threatening to do so, the hope is to instill fear into the child, so that they will comply with the instruction provided and stop the undesirable behaviour, that is, ignoring the parent’s instructions.

Fear is a valid emotion that provides important information. It allows us to recognise a threatening situation, whether real or perceived, which then prepare our bodies for fight or flight. We learn to avoid fearful situations, and to do things that bring comfort and joy instead.

In the simplest of forms, instilling fear would help children learn that they should leave when their parents say so. However, human relations and attachment go far beyond simple behavioural conditioning. What exactly do we want our children to learn?


Studies have shown that parenting styles can have an impact on what children fear, which could lead to a higher likelihood of them developing anxieties and phobias as they age.

Highly authoritarian parenting does not help children learn how to make their own decisions, which can result in higher dependency and lower confidence in themselves.

Using fear-based tactics such as walking away from the child may result in them learning that the world is a dangerous place which can lead to the development of issues such as social anxiety and mistrust in others. The child may not dare to engage in independent exploration which is crucial for emotional and social growth.

Most importantly, children may learn to comply, but not learn to manage their fears or understand the reasons for the desired actions, which is probably what we wanted to teach them in the first place.

To a child, being left behind could be interpreted as being abandoned by their caregivers, given that they may not comprehend the nuances between the two. At their most vulnerable state, the child may feel unwanted and that they are only loved conditionally - when they fulfill their caregivers’s needs or desires.

The child may hence learn to comply at the cost of building a strong relationship with themselves and others – just doing things that others want rather than knowing their needs too.

In my work with older adolescents and adults, many individuals have shared painful memories of being “left behind” in shopping malls or scared into submission through corporal punishment. The common themes of their experiences are intense fear and the overwhelming feeling of having to deal with it alone.

These individuals tend to develop difficulties with making mistakes or trying new things, and tend to mistrust themselves and others, which can have dire impact on relationship building.


Coming back to the question of intention, what do we want our children to learn? Psychiatrist Dr Dan Siegel and therapist Dr Tina Bryson argue that discipline can stem from a place of love and respect between the child and the adult.

The concept of “being with” rather than “doing to” the child could be a way to reframe our perspective of discipline and teaching.

The next time you’re tempted to leave your children behind, pause and ask yourself: What do I want to teach my children? Do I want them to comply and be obedient or do I want them to learn to respect time and be aware of their impact on others?

“Being with” could look like pausing, taking a breath, connecting at your child’s level and seeking collaboration, for example: “We need to leave in 10 minutes’ time. How can we help each other make this happen?”

It could also mean showing up for your children’s feelings and validating them, for example: “I know you want to stay here longer, I get it, however…” then redirecting them to the new behaviour that you would like them to engage in.

We could even attempt to understand what is so exciting about the space they are in and aim to experience that with your child before setting limits.

Drawing up a plan before heading out with input from your children could also teach them the importance of collaboration. With some structure, children would feel less overwhelmed and more confident in following parental direction.

Hopefully in this way, children develop an understanding of themselves and others, and experience love regardless of how big their emotions may be. In turn, this could help them grow into more empathetic adults who continue to build safe and secure attachment bonds with themselves and their loved ones.

Dr Cherie Chan is a clinical psychologist at The Other Clinic.

Source: CNA/el


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