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Using when-then statements effectively

When you blow on a dandelion, then the seeds will scatter.
When you blow on a dandelion, then the seeds will scatter.
Photo by Philippe Put via Flickr

Sometimes children do not want to listen, and sometimes they just aren't able to at the moment. Emotions and excitement can elevate to the point that hearing a request is just not possible. To help your child hear the request and understand its importance, a when-then statement can be helpful.

When-then statements are way of saying that something has to happen before another a second thing can. They are used to express a basic order of events. For example, shoes need to be put on before going outside to play. In this case, you can say to your child, “When your shoes are on, then we will go outside.” You can also use this wording if you find yourself threatening your child by saying thing like “If you don't put your shoes on, I'm not taking you outside.” It takes some effort to rethink the threats and turn them into positive when-then statements, but with practice it will become much easier.

This is not a tool to use to threaten your child, such as saying, “When (or if) you talk back, then you will be grounded.” This is a tool to help make an action occur by linking the needed behavior to the desired outcome. You can use it to help keep your child on track in the midst of excitement or high emotion. You should not use when-then to bribe your child either, so do not say, “When you sit still for five minutes, then you can have ice cream.” The two actions should be truly linked, and the first should be necessary for the second to occur.

When you finish clearing off the table, then we can start doing the puzzle (on the table).
When your pajamas are on, then we can read bedtime stories.
When you put your helmet on, then you can ride your bike.

As with all discipline, the key is to remember to be respectful and reasonable. If you find yourself using when-then statements to threaten or bribe your child, it may be a good idea to stop using them until you have had a chance to break the threatening and bribing habit.

Do you have a discipline question about a specific behavioral issue? Send it to me at, and I may feature it in an upcoming article.

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