Parenting is not easy, so learning to discipline appropriately is imperative to making life with your children run more smoothly.

“If you don’t stop that I am going to pull this car over and let you out on the side of the road!!!” Have you ever said this? If you haven’t, then you are far better at parenting than most. This is an example of an unrealistic threat. If you are yelling this at your four-year-old, chances are you will not follow through with this threat. Unless of course, you don’t mind having child protective services on your doorstep that day.

Using threats that you don’t ever intend to follow through on are ineffective threats. If you threaten to walk out of the store and leave your child behind, or you threaten to put them to bed at 3:00 PM without dinner, or you threaten to leave your young child home alone because they are getting ready extra slow that day…you are using ineffective threats. At that moment, it may work, but eventually your child will figure out that your threats are empty because you are unable to follow through with these threats. If you do follow through with an unrealistic threat you are typically either a) doing something in which child protective services would not approve OR b) you are going to feel very guilty and know it is too harsh a punishment.

In order to parent effectively, you need to use realistic threats and actually follow through with the punishments. One time I heard my husband threatening to throw away my daughter’s IPAD. Of course I knew he wouldn’t. We paid good money for it! I had a brief conversation in the other room with him and asked him to give her a threat he could actually follow through on. I suggested a simple time out. He said, that’s it?? Yes, because it works. She wasn’t listening about turning off the IPAD and getting ready for the day. It was infuriating him because we were running behind schedule and she was being sassy and belligerent. His empty threat didn’t get her to move because she knew he wouldn’t throw it away. She is a smart four-year-old. Kids catch on to empty threats. He went back in and threatened the time out. She resisted and so she went into time out. It worked though. After the time out she did what she was supposed to do. He was surprised that it worked. I wasn’t, as I knew that punishments don’t need to be earth shattering. They just need to be consequences that match the behavior and they need to be realistic threats so the punishment can actually occur.

Time outs and taking away toys or privileges can be very effective when used consistently. Because when you follow through consistently, your child knows you mean business when you threaten a punishment. Be specific about punishments, but don’t threaten things you never truly intend to follow through on.

Kids are smart. They learn through experiences. If they experience that certain threats always lead to no actual punishment or follow through, then they learn that they can continue to get away with the behavior you are trying to stop or change. What exactly is a realistic punishment? For time outs it is advised that the minutes match the age. For example, a two-year-old needs only 2 minutes for a time out and a five-year-old needs 5 minutes in order for the punishment to be effective. Now there are always exceptions. If they are in a full blown melt down a quiet time in their room alone for 30 minutes may be needed to have them calm down.  However, in general, time outs are the same minutes as their age.

If you are a parent, I challenge you to pay at attention to your threats for the next 24 hours. Ask yourself as you make these threats, do I actually intend to follow through with the punishment? Is the punishment fair? Was I actually thinking about the threat of punishment before I blurted it out? Being a parent is hard. It takes effort to be a good parent. One day at a time is the best policy to take when trying to be the best parent you can possibly become. Take the time to issue fair and reasonable threats before they leave your lips. Your future parent self will thank you for making the effort.
Dr. E. Magdalena Battles has a PhD in Academic and Clinical Psychology, a Master’s Degree in Professional Counseling, and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Child Psychology. Her specialties include children, domestic violence, and sexual assault.