Why Ultimatums Don’t Work for Long Term Change

Published On: 29 June 2022

Reading time: 5 minutes

The definition of an ultimatum is a final demand. You are asking for compliance from the individual you are working with rather than giving them a choice. They most commonly happen in those moments of pure frustration when you’ve run out ideas to get a child, young person, or adult to do something you ask. Out of desperation, you issue an ultimatum. But what do you do when that doesn’t work? It is important to take stock; consider what is driving the individual’s behaviour and why an ultimatum feels like the only option.   

Why are you giving ultimatums?

Ultimatums usually present as, “Do this, or else!” We use them when we run out of other ideas. 

They often follow this pattern:

  1. You ask the individual nicely to do something: “Please can you complete the worksheet.”
  2. You repeat the instruction: “I’m still waiting for you to complete the worksheet.”
  3. Then you offer a reward if they do it: “If you complete the worksheet, you can go out for playtime.”
  4. Now you shout: Get the worksheet completed, RIGHT NOW!”
  5. Finally, you issue an ultimatum: “If you don’t complete the worksheet, you’re not playing football for the rest of the week!”

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. When faced with a behaviour that you are finding challenging, the most important thing to do is have a moment of self-reflection before acting. Ask yourself, “How am I feeling?” before trying to address the behaviour you don’t want to see.

What are the problems with giving ultimatums?

Ultimatums do sometimes work. That’s why we use them, right? But when they do, it’s often based on a fear of the consequences. This can create a negative relationship between you and the child, young person, or adult. Ultimatums breed resentment. It can even make the individual in your care feel frightened of you.

Often, when we give an ultimatum, we’re not actually prepared to go through with it. Individuals are quick to pick up on that. They know you’re not really going to take their football away forever or stop them from having playtime. And then you’re stuck.

What can you do instead of giving ultimatums?

Removing ultimatums doesn’t mean letting an individual ‘get away’ with everything or encourage them to ignore you. In fact, it helps you stay more in control of challenging situations and encourages the behaviours you want to see.

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 “complete the worksheet” or “tidy this room” seem huge and unmanageable. The individual might think it will take them a long time to do it. Try breaking it down into small, easily achieved tasks instead.

Instead of this:

  • Complete the worksheet.

Try this:

  1. Look at Question 1—can you remember what we did in class to help?
  2. Excellent! How about the next question? It’s like the last one you did.
  3. Now, up to Question 5 in the same way.

Similarly, instead of:

  • Get yourself ready for Breakfast.

Try this:

  1. Choose the clothes you want to wear. Today is a cold day.
  2. Now let’s brush your hair.
  3. Great! Now it’s clean teeth time.

Keep it simple and thank them for each small step they achieve. You might find it helpful to use a visual task strip or timetable to support them through each stage. Stay positive and encouraging and praise the progress they’re making.

3: Think about why this is happening

Behaviour is a way of communicating an unmet need. Often children, young people, and adults don’t put their feelings into words. If you’re getting a big reaction, think about why that might be happening. It could be as simple as they can’t remember all the instructions and now finding it hard to complete the task.

Help the individual to regulate—and remember, it can take a long time for them to feel in control of strong emotions. Pick a time when they feel more relaxed to talk to them about what you’ve noticed and ask them to help you find a solution.

4: Decide consequences in advance

If consequences are appropriate and used in your setting, make it clear to the individual what will happen if they choose not to do as you’ve asked. This is not a threat, but the simple consequence of their choice. Often this will be a natural consequence, such as, “If you don’t stop playing this game, we’ll miss snack time.” Follow the specific behaviour policies in your setting; making sure the consequence is small, reasonable and time limited.

5: Make it their choice

We can’t force those in our care to do things, nor should this be something we’re aiming for. If a child, young person, or adult 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 a more positive choice next time. Keep focused on the positives rather than dwelling on problems.