Link copied to clipboard

Why Kids Don’t Heed Your Warnings

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


You know how this goes. You warn your kid about dangerous stuff or even just things to avoid, only to find they completely ignore you. They even act surprised after-the-fact that you ever warned them at all. Your warnings seem to fall on deaf ears.

There’s a reason why. Negative consequences are processed differently in the brain than positive consequences. The reasons why a risky behavior might be fun are more available to a child’s mind than the reasons why it might be dangerous. This fact can help us help our kids.

Researchers at University College London asked 59 people aged 9 to 26 to estimate the likelihood that any of 40 bad things would happen to them. The bad things ranged from stuff like getting head lice to breaking an arm or being seriously injured in a car accident and included stuff like, appendicitis, bicycle theft, home burglary, knee surgery, losing a wallet, sports injury, bullied by a stranger, and being stung by a wasp.

After they guessed, they were told the real odds of each event.

Then the participants were asked to guess the odds once again. Everyone was good at reporting odds if the risk was actually less than what they’d originally thought. But they were less good at remembering the odds of bad events that were more likely than they’d thought before. And the younger the child, the worse they were at remembering worse odds.

The problem wasn’t a matter of poor memory, since better-than-expected outcomes were remembered just fine. The problem was a matter of brain development. Positive information is registered in many different parts of the brain. Negative information is registered primarily in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for weighing consequences and making judgments. However, the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until late adolescence, even as late as the mid-20s.

So now what? How can you warn your child about risks and have those warnings be remembered? Researcher Tali Sharot says simply, “We learn better from good news than from bad news.” So instead of telling children about bad outcomes, emphasize good ones.

  • Instead of warning about the dangers of smoking, point out that non-smokers have better lung capacity and do better at sports.
  • Instead of carping about the need for fruits and vegetables, point out that the anti-oxidants in fruits and vegetables promote smooth skin.
  • Instead of fussing over your child’s driving, remind her that good drivers pay less for car insurance.

Admittedly, we still will worry and warn. We’d feel that we weren’t being good parents if we didn’t. But we shouldn’t be surprised that children don’t seem to process our warnings or apply them at the critical moment. This we should expect.

We have to be prepared to make our warnings over and over, and in as positive a way as we can. Nothing we can do will hurry brain development. Keeping our kids safe and healthy until their brains catch up is still a parent’s job.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

share this
Follow Us

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.