When it comes to disciplining young children these days, most families turn to time-outs. Nevertheless, many parents who come into my office seem unsure about exactly how to use this technique, and some confess that "it just doesn't work." Here are some strategies and suggestions for making time-outs an effective tool. Time-out basics
- Time-outs work best starting when children are 18 to 24 months old and until they're about 5. Although every child is different, children younger than that don't really "get it," and older kids generally need more sophisticated ways to learn how to behave well.
- A time-out is a period during which a child is removed from the troublesome situation or temptation. It's his chance to calm down, regroup, remember what is expected of him, and get organized again. If the time-out creates more attention, energy, upset, or interaction with the parent or care provider, it is doomed to failure.
- During a time-out, the child does not get to interact with the parent or care provider. A time-out is meant to be a minor form of isolation that says, in effect, "When you do this, you can't be a part of things."
- In order for time-outs to work, you need to establish a time-out pattern. This requires an initial investment of time that most parents find worthwhile. If you've used time-outs unsuccessfully in the past, the initial time investment will be greater than if you've never used them before. Resetting a child's expectations is harder than getting it right the first time, but it's still worth the time and energy.
- Place a chair in a boring, neutral spot, such as the corner of a dining room or a rarely used entrance area. I don't like to use a child's bedroom because it creates negative associations with a place that should be a safe haven. A bedroom also tends to contain too many distractions.
- Be sure the place is away from the "scene of the crime" and away from care providers. Being in the middle of things provides too much opportunity for compounding the problem with teasing and provocative behavior.
- Be sure the time-out location is a safe place where the child can be left alone without supervision. For example, the top of a staircase, near breakable items, and next to a door that he can open are all NOT the places to pick.
Spending all day doing time-out? Ask yourself ...
- If a child is very frantic or upset, he won't be able to learn from the time-out. Instead, hold him silently (facing outward is usually better in this circumstance), wait until the crying turns angry rather than frantic, and then begin the time-out.
- If a child is ill, stressed, or overly tired, very little learning will take place, and a time-out may deplete him even more. In this case, just get him away from the trouble and refuel with whatever is needed — a hug, a snack, a trip to the car away from a hectic store, or a nap.
- For children who have experienced a lot of serious separations, time-outs bring up too much emotion, which overrides the learning opportunity. I see this a lot with children in foster care. For these youngsters, it's better if you set up a chair behind the child so that you sit back to back. The "no talking" rule still stands, the timer still marks the duration, and attention is still withdrawn — but the child doesn't feel abandoned.
- Children who are developmentally delayed or very advanced in cognitive skills may need to be treated based on their developmental age rather than their chronological age. For example, a 30-month-old child functioning like a 10-month-old can't really understand time-out.
- Have you prioritized the behaviors you want to work on? Pick your battles, and remember that Rome wasn't built in a day.
- Is there a larger situation that's overly stressful for the child, such as a preschool that is too demanding or expectations that are too high? If so, consider making a change — a new preschool or day care, a different play group — so the child can be successful and not explode with built-up tension every day.
- Are you giving your child enough attention when he's behaving well? Or does he have to misbehave to get you to notice and interact with him? One approach is to "catch him" being good. This is hard because as the misbehavior escalates, your natural tendency is to push back and even try to avoid him. A better solution might be to get down on the floor and just play with him for 20 to 30 minutes every day.
- Is the child bored and trying to liven things up? I see this with bright youngsters who are over-ready for a preschool experience or need more challenges in their lives.
- Are you too stressed, pressured, or depressed? A child will do provocative things to pull you out of your shell, even if it means risking your anger.
- After two warnings about the forbidden behavior, announce, "Okay, it's time for a time-out." Nothing more. Pick up the child and place him in the time-out seat.
- Set a timer (either a freestanding kitchen timer or the clock on the oven if the child can hear it go off). The duration should be about one minute per year of the child's age.
- If the child gets up, simply put him back in the chair and reset the timer. Don't say anything. You may need to repeat this a hundred times before he sits for the entire duration. Don't give up. If you do, it will be harder the next time.
- When the timer goes off, say, "It's all done now," give him a hug, and leave it at that. Don't discuss the issue, and don't even mention what happened earlier.
- Give the child something new to do, a positive alternative to the forbidden activity.
- The parent talks too much. This only confuses the child, adds to the tension, and makes everyone upset. A simple statement of the transgression when the "crime" is committed, such as "You hit your sister again," followed by "It's time for a time-out," is all that is needed. After that, silence is golden.
- The time-out results in too much attention. If a time-out provides more attention to the child than he receives when he's behaving well, he'll continue to draw your attention with the provocative behavior. A time-out should be an occasion when you withdraw attention; you should not be pulled into further interaction.
- The parent is too upset. If you feel wildly out of control, you won't be able to help your child learn. Take a few seconds or a few minutes to catch your breath and calm down. You may even want to give yourself a time-out, away from the situation, after you make sure everyone is safe. When you've settled down, go back to your child, state the reason for the time-out, and put him in time-out. Be sure you save this scenario for the worst of crimes rather than making it a habit. A parent time out is generally pretty upsetting to a child.
- A parent who gives in or gets drawn into a fight over time. This defeats the purpose of the time-out.