The dead man’s switch

It’s a term known to railroad operators, and a concept familiar to therapists working with clients in danger of harming themselves or others, as we sometimes do:

Never leave a dicey situation in the hands of someone unstable.

In other words, if we make an agreement with a client that they will call us each day before 5pm, that agreement should also include a contingency for what we will do if we don’t hear from them by 5pm. This is also known as a dead man’s switch, which, per our good old friend Wikipedia, is:

a switch that is automatically operated if the human operator becomes incapacitated, such as through death, loss of consciousness, or being bodily removed from control. Originally applied to switches on a vehicle or machine, it has since come to be used to describe other intangible uses like in computer software.  These switches are usually used as a form of fail-safe where they stop a machine with no operator from potentially dangerous action or incapacitate a device as a result of accident, malfunction, or misuse.

If the client doesn’t call by 5pm, rather than risk “potentially dangerous action,” we don’t rest on our laurels and hope for the best. Instead, we build a dead man’s switch into our agreement indicating that we will, for example, call someone else, such as the client’s emergency contact or the police.

It’s a useful concept for parents as well.  Tell me if you’ve heard this one before:

“It’s bedtime. You need to stop playing by the time I count to three.”


“I’m not kidding around here. One…two…I really mean it!…two and a half…seriously, stop playing!…three….er…”

[Kid still playing happily]


[Kid giggles, reaches for another handful of crayons]

No need to raise your hand.  I know we’ve all been there.  And hats off to you for starting by inviting compliance and cooperation from your unstable little child. But remember, it’s a bad idea to leave a dicey situation in the hands of someone unstable! So we can always start by inviting compliance and cooperation, but equally be sure to build in a dead man’s switch. In other words, if, given the opportunity to cooperate, our child declines (politely or otherwise), we have a built-in alternative option that achieves the same end result, respectfully.

Let’s try that one again, shall we?

“It’s bedtime. When I count to three, you can either stop playing and walk with me to your bedroom, or I will scoop you up and carry you into bed.”

“No! No bedtime!”

“I get it, you wish it weren’t bedtime. I know. And it’s still bedtime now. Okay, I’m getting ready to count to three, and then either you’ll come to bed or I’ll carry you.  Here I go…one… two…three!”

[Kid giggles, reaches for another handful of crayons]

“Okay, you’re showing me that you need me to carry you into bed tonight. On three I’m going to scoop up your body…one…two…three!”

[Child is gently but firmly scooped up and taken to bed. Child may have feelings about this. The parent acknowledges the feelings while still holding the limit that it’s bedtime and following through with the dead man’s switch choice.]

Notice how in this situation, the parent has a failsafe in case the child is unable or unwilling to cooperate – which is, by the way, totally normal and developmentally appropriate. And, as parents, it’s totally appropriate for us to acknowledge our children’s dissatisfaction with our limits while holding them at the same time.

So, the next time something really needs to get done, and you’d like to see if your child is wiling to cooperate (but suspect they may not be wiling or able), remember to build in a dead man’s switch. Yes, our children are cute, increasingly verbal and aware, and growing in capacity and autonomy every day. But those things don’t mean they can or will always do what we ask when we ask them to do it.

So think like an engineer and craft a simple, but ingenious failsafe. Never leave yourself at the mercy of an unstable person, especially if that person is your kid.

For additional reading:

Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track. Virtual visits now available!

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!

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