Time-out can work
© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD
“I tried time out and it never works!”
Time-out is a great discipline tool for parents of toddlers to young-school-age kids—if it’s done right. Done incorrectly, time-out may make problematic behavior even worse.
First: time-outs are only one discipline strategy. If you use them too often, they won’t work at all. You can’t rely on time-outs alone to solve every problem. Also, time-outs only work if your child is usually in “time-in”. That is, if your child is always “in the doghouse,” being criticized and punished, then he probably doesn’t even know what “time-in” is like. For your child to learn lessons from time-out, he should be living in a world that’s full of love and smiles at support at least 90% of the time. That way, those periods of time-out are really shocking and powerful. If you’re feeling like your child is being bad a lot and needs to be punished a lot, it’s better to work on positive techniques than intensify your punishments.
Rules for good time-outs:
Never warn that at time-out is coming, and never threaten. If you’re warning Junior about a time-out, you’re not doing a time-out. As soon as your child earns one—say, for hitting—immediately start the time-out. Don’t talk about it, don’t warn, don’t give dirty looks, don’t threaten “next time, one is coming.” Just do it. In fact, if you can’t do an effective time-out, it’s better to ignore the behavior than to make a half-hearted warning that is going to be ignored.
Start your time-out with a two-word statement of the rule, saying something like “NO HITTING.” Say this strongly, with emotion, and even a little anger. You’re supposed to look mean and unloving at that moment. But do not keep talking and explaining! You’ve said everything you need to say. Now do the time out.
Physically place the child where he or she cannot see you. Alone in a room is best, in a corner is probably OK—but sitting in a special chair facing you is not going to help. The idea of a time-out is that your child has lost her place in the family, is not welcome, and is excluded from your love and your presence (temporarily!). If your child can see you and watch you, that is not a time-out.
Leave your child in time-out for about 1 minute per year of life. Do not check on him. Do not talk to him. Ignore him for this period of time. If you have to lean on the door or hold the knob silently to keep him in his room, do it. Do not talk!
When the time is over, your facial expression should completely change. You are no longer angry. Hug him and say you love him, and repeat the broken rule once, in a loving voice. “No hitting.” Do NOT keep talking or explaining or discussing the rule. Do not stay angry—even if you are angry, pretend you’re not. Remember: time-out only works if the child then returns to time-in afterwards.
When parents start using time-outs correctly, many children will have a temporary increase in negative behavior. They’re testing you. Don’t escalate the punishments, don’t make time-out longer. Just keep doing them exactly this way.
Time-outs are one very effective tool to help younger children learn to behave. They work best in a loving, supportive house where lessons are also being taught with positive reinforcement, modeling, and very clear rules that are always enforced. I know, it’s a lot of work to teach children to behave. Being a parent is a tough job. You owe it to your kids to do your best.
Adapted from a post that first appeared on WebMD’s Your Children’s Health blog.