Threatening a Child

Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

The topic of spanking a child as a form of Chinuch has been discussed in many venues, but one topic that is not discussed as often is using verbal threats as a form of discipline. An excerpt from the second chapter of Maseches Semachos is an excellent place to start our conversation. 

There was a story with a child in Bnei Brak who broke a flask on Shabbos. His father made a threatening gesture with his ear. The child was so afraid of the father’s threat that he killed himself by jumping into a pit.

This jarring quote from Chazal clearly intends to communicate to us the danger of using a threat, especially an open-ended threat, as a form of Chinuch. Why is this the case? What are the psychological underpinnings of this directive? As we often do in this column, we must first explore the neurological elements of the fear reaction in the brain, and then the risks involved in threatening a child will become clear.

Our eyes and ears are the primary ways that we absorb information. Sights and sounds by themselves are neutral and are not inherently fear-provoking unto themselves. It is how our brains interpret the data that determines our reaction. 

We have two separate and distinct areas of the brain that are involved in this process, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is embedded in the center of the brain and reacts quickly to danger. This part of the brain determines when to trigger the fight-or-flight reaction. The prefrontal cortex is in the front of the brain, and is involved in making decisions, solving problems, and analyzing information.

For our purposes, there are two main differences between these two parts of the brain. The amygdala needs to respond on moment’s notice and therefore jumps to conclusions in literally a millisecond, whereas the prefrontal cortex works much slower. Secondly, the prefrontal cortex in children is under-developed and therefore they are at risk of an overactive amygdala.

For these reasons, when a child feels threatened, they might feel the fear viscerally and literally fear for their lives. They have very little context to understand the magnitude of a threat, and do not have the benefit of a mature prefrontal cortex to help them analyze the situation. 

Another way this plays out is if one screams at a child. No matter what you say when you scream at a child, you are triggering a fear reaction from their amygdala. The stress level in the child skyrockets and the child gets stuck in the fear reaction. 

The ramifications for Chinuch are enormous for the following reason. Chinuch takes place in the prefrontal cortex and not in the amygdala! Chinuch is the forming and cultivating of a child’s outlook on life and approach to everyday challenges. As your child’s prefrontal cortex develops, you are trying to cultivate it. You are trying to teach your child how to think, analyze, and understand the world around him or her as befitting a Torah Jew. If you trigger your child’s amygdala, then your child has no access to the prefrontal cortex at that time and true Chinuch cannot take place.

Furthermore, every child eventually becomes an adult. As adults, they still need their parents for guidance and advice. If your child does not view you as a bedrock of safety and security, then they will not turn to you when they are grown up. Parents who trigger their child’s amygdala will inevitably be viewed by the child, at least subconsciously, as unsafe. Why would you want to not be a resource for your child when life becomes truly challenging for them as they emerge into adulthood?

Sometimes parents have their own history of being screamed at as a child, and have a difficult time breaking the cycle when they are raising their own children. Seeking professional help can be a vital resource for a parent to overcome their own personal challenges that are interfering with their ability to parent their child properly. The benefits from such an intervention can literally last for generations. 

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