How to Use If...Then Warnings to Stop Behavior Problems

An if...then statement usually puts an end to behavior problems fast.

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If you tend to give your child multiple warnings, even though you say things like, "I'm not going to tell you this again!" your child will learn to tune you out.

But, it can be hard to know what to do when your child doesn't pick up his toys or doesn't turn off his video game the first time you tell him.

Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to gain compliance and get your child to listen the first time you speak.

How to Give an Effective Warning

If…then warnings can teach your child that you mean business the first time you speak. The good news is, these warnings work well for preschoolers straight through the teen years.

If…then statements are along the same lines as counting. Where 1-2-3 Magic encourages parents to say, “1…2…3,” before following through with a consequence, if…then statements warn kids of the consequence they'll receive if they don't comply.

Examples of If…Then Statements

While there are lots of different times you might provide your child with an if...then statement, here are a few examples:

  • If you don’t pick up the toys right now, then you will have to go to time out.
  • If you don’t comb your hair right now, then you're going to have to go to school with messy hair. 
  • If you don’t turn off your video game right now, then you won’t be allowed to play it again for 24 hours.

How If…Then Statements Work

Giving an if…then statement means you are offering a single reminder that your child needs to change her behavior. Then, it is up to her to make the choice. If she doesn't change her behavior, follow through with a negative consequence. 

It is also a great way to avoid power struggles. Instead of arguing with kids to get something done, if…then statements make the consequence and your expectations clear.

Offering a warning can reduce the tendency to nag. It also reduces arguing and yelling. By giving kids one reminder, it gives them an opportunity to take responsibility for their own behavior.

One Warning Only

Only use if...then statements if you're fully prepared to follow through with the consequence. If you don't enforce your consequences, your warnings won't be effective. Potential consequences can include things such as time-out or loss of privileges.

Don’t use if…then statements for serious behaviors that should result in an immediate consequence. For example, if your child hits, give him a consequence right away. He shouldn’t receive a second chance or a warning in the form of an if…then statement.

Reminders About Rewards

You can also spin if…then statements into positives. Using Grandma’s rule of discipline, you can remind kids about the positive consequences of doing something.

For example, remind a child, “If you eat all of your dinner, then you can have dessert.” This reminds kids they have a choice and if they want, they can choose to earn a reward.

Tips for Using If…Then Statements

If...then warnings will only be effective if you are consistent in how you give them. Here are some tips for how to use them to effectively change your child's behavior:

  • Only give children an if…then statement once. If you repeat it over and over again your child won't take you seriously. She'll learn she doesn't have to listen the first time you speak.
  • Give kids about five seconds to begin to comply. If you say, “If you don’t put your shoes on right now, then we won’t go to the park,” give your child about five seconds to absorb what you’ve said and made a move toward putting on his shoes. If he doesn't, then you can follow through with a consequence.
  • Offer reasonable consequences. Avoid saying something like, “If you don’t put your bike away right now, then you’ll never be allowed to ride it again.” Instead, make consequences time-sensitive. Usually taking away a privilege for 24 hours is plenty.
  • Use a calm tone when giving if…then statements. If you yell or sound really angry it is less likely to be effective.
  • Pair if…then statements with a ​reward system or token economy system. Offer a reminder about the behavior needed to earn the reward. For example, say, “If you don’t feed the dog before dinner time, you won’t earn your token.”

Keep in mind that you may need to follow through with the consequence several times in a row when you first begin using if...then warnings. But, after a few times, your child will realize that you're serious when you warn him of a consequence. Then, you'll be more likely to begin gaining compliance the first time you speak.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.