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How to Prevent a Child from Calling Your Bluff

Parental threats can easily become bluffs when a parent can't follow through with consequences. That can create defiant children. There's a better way.

Many parents consider bluffing to be a legitimate discipline tactic: If a child refuses to eat, they’ll threaten to take away dessert when there might not have been dessert at all. But some parents might go even bigger and threaten to take dessert away forever, which they can’t actually do. And how a parent reacts when a kid calls their bluff can set up a dynamic of push and pull for years. Follow through is critical. But so is restraint.

“It becomes your parenting moment of parenting moments: realizing that parenting isn’t a popularity contest, ” says Dr. Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “If a kid is pushing at 3, fast forward and think ‘what’s he gonna be doing when he’s 17’. There comes a point when you have to realize you’re the adult and decide how far you’re going to go.”

The trouble with follow through is parents often drop an ultimatum in a moment of frustration, and when they do, the consequences can be absolutely ridiculous. It’s very, very unlikely that a parent is going to put a lifelong ban on dessert, but when a toddler’s on an inconsolable rampage, such a threat could emerge and be promptly ignored.

How to Keep a Child from Calling Your Bluff

  • Set reasonable expectations and limits.
  • Arm yourself with consequences prior to engaging in the discipline.
  • Follow through with the limits you set, regardless of how difficult it feels.
  • Use tools like timers to keep you from caving in during consequences.
  • Understand punishment does not need to be harsh to be effective.

Borba recommends parents arm themselves with an arsenal of consequences to different behaviors, which can be drawn on in times of kid-conflict. “If we can think through consequences ahead of time, they’re more likely to come out of our mouth when push comes to shove and we’re a little stressed,” she explains. “We make those carte blanche threats, and they know you don’t mean them. Once you open your mouth and put out a threat, be prepared to follow through.”

But calling a parental bluff isn’t only a matter of ignoring a threat, grandiose or otherwise. It may be a matter of not reacting to a punishment as a parent might expect. Consider the time-out, for instance. Psychologists recommend they not exceed the child’s age in minutes —a 1-minute timeout for a 1-year-old, 2 for a 2-year-old — up to age 8. But when a child’s crying, a parent might be tempted to stop the time-out early. That, too, is a bluff being called.

That’s why Borba calls a simple oven timer one of the best tools in a parent’s arsenal. Once the timer is set, a parent can walk away. No bluff at all. Timers don’t cave. Once it goes off, the time-out is over.

It’s just another method of a continuing struggle to keep kids in line, and Borba says a lot of that involves trying new methods. She stresses that parents don’t need to be harsh to keep a child respecting their authority. But if a parent caves often, the child will manipulate the situation endlessly. So if they call a bluff, be prepared to double down on the threat or spend the next 18 years being second-guessed.

“It doesn’t have to be severe, as long as we’re following through,” she says. “Figure out where you’re gonna draw a line in the sand and don’t (let them) cross it. One of our best parenting tools is following through. The next time and the next time, the kid isn’t going to push you because they know you mean business.”