This easy-to-learn, easy-to-use technique will help you better handle your child’s aggressive and disruptive behavior in the toddler and preschooler years-and often well beyond. (see article on "Discipline and Your Child").
How do I use a time-out?
Time-out consists of immediately isolating a child in a boring place for a few minutes whenever he/she misbehaves. It is also called quiet time, thinking time, or cooling-off time. Used repeatedly and correctly, this technique can change almost any undesirable childhood behavior. Time-out is the most effective consequence for toddlers and preschoolers who misbehave -- better than threatening, shouting, or spanking. It also has the advantage of providing a cooling-off period to allow both child and parent to calm down and regain control of their emotions. Every parent needs to learn how to use time-out effectively.
Time-out is most useful for aggressive, harmful, or disruptive behavior, such as hitting or biting, that cannot be ignored. It is unnecessary for most temper tantrums, which can and should be ignored. Time-out is not needed until at least 8 months of age, when children begin to crawl. It is rarely needed before 18 months because younger children usually respond to verbal disapproval. The peak ages for using time-out are 2 to 4 years. During these years, children respond to action much better than words. Time-out can also be used for older children if removing privileges and possessions does not work.
Choosing A Place For Time-Out
What Is A Time-Out Chair?
If you use a chair for time-out, it should be in a boring location, facing a blank wall or corner. Your child should not be able to see TV or other people from the chair. Usually the chair is placed in a hallway or room next to where you are. Some children under 2 years of age have separation fears and need to have the chair in the same room as the parent. It your child is in the same room, carefully avoid making eye contact with him/her.
A good type of chair to use for time-out is a heavy one with side arms. Placed in a corner, such a chair surrounds the child with boundaries, leaves a small space for the legs, and reduces thoughts of escape.
Do not use a rocking chair or other chair that might tip over easily.Instead of using a chair for time-out, you can have your child stand in a particular corner, sit on a particular spot on the floor, or stay in a playpen if he/she is not old enough to climb out of it.
What Is A Time-Out Room?
If your child refuses to stay in a time-out chair, send him/her to a time-out room. It is easier to make a child stay in a room, and some children are more cooperative about going to a room. The room should be one that is safe for your child and contains no valuables. Avoid any room that is dark or scary (such as closets and some basements), contains hot water (bathrooms), or has filing cabinets, bookshelves, or wall units that the child could pull over. Young children always need supervision while in time-out.
The child's bedroom is often the most convenient and safe place for time-out. Although toys are available there, your child probably will not play with them at first because he/she is upset about being excluded from family activities. During time-out, forbid the use of a radio, stereo or video games.
What Do I Do When Away From Home?
Time-out can be used effectively in any setting. It is helpful to bring a portable timer with you for this purpose. At the supermarket, for example, you can put a younger child in the grocery cart. In a shopping mall, your child can take time-out sitting on a bench. Sometimes you may need to take your child to the car and have him/her sit in the back seat for the required minutes.
How Do I Administer A Time-Out?
Practicing time-out with your child
If you have not used time-out before, go over it with your child in advance. Tell him/her it will replace spanking, yelling, and other forms of discipline. Review the kinds of behavior that will lead to time-out. Also review the positive behavior that you would prefer. Then pretend with your child that a rule has been broken.
Review the steps of time-out so there will be no misunderstanding how a time-out works when it becomes necessary to use. Also teach this technique to your babysitter, relatives and others who take care of your child. It may be helpful to give them a copy of this handout.
Deciding the length of time-out
Time-out should be short enough so that your child has a chance to go back to the original situation and learn the acceptable behavior. A good rule of thumb is one minute for every year of age up to a maximum of ten minutes. After 6 years of age, most children can be told to stay in time-out "until you can behave." This allows them to choose how long they stay there. If the problem behavior recurs, make the next time-out the full length.
Setting a portable kitchen timer for the required number of minutes helps time-out succeed for children over 2 years of age (younger children cannot understand the concept of the timer). The timer will stop your child from asking you when the time-out is over. The best type to use is one that ticks continuously and rings when the time is up. The best place to put it is where your child can see and hear, but out of reach. You can have your child bring you the timer at the end of time-out.
Sending your child to time-out
Older children will usually go to time-out on their own. Younger children often need to be led there by the hand, or in some cases, carried to their room despite their protesting (forced time-out). If your child does not go to time-out within five seconds, take him/her there. Do not yell, scream or lose your temper. You do not want your child to think his/her action has upset you (even though it probably did). Do not allow your child to have any toys, pacifiers, security blankets, pets, or other objects of comfort when taking a forced time-out.
Do not lecture, spank, or answer your child’s pleas on the way to time-out. Explain what was done (in one sentence) that was an inappropriate behavior, such as "No hitting" or "No biting." If possible, clarify the expected behavior: "Be kind to Dr. Bob." These brief comments give your child something to think about in time-out.
Behavior in time-out
The minimum requirement for completing time-out is that your child does not leave the chair or time-out place until the time-out is over. If your child leaves ahead of time, reset the timer.
Some parents will not accept a completed time-out unless the child has been quiet for the entire time. Until 4 years of age, many children are unwilling or unable to comply with a quiet rule.
Ignore tantrums in time-out, just as you would tantrums outside of time-out. Also ignore noisemaking, cursing, and complaining. If your child vomits while in time-out, clean him/her up quickly and start the time-out over.
After 4 years of age, quiet time is preferred but not required. You can tell your child, "Time-out is supposed to be for thinking and to think, you have to be quiet. If you yell or fuss, the time-out will start over." If your child makes a mess in his/her room (empties clothing out of drawers or takes the bed apart), everything must be cleaned up before he/she will be released from the time-out. Toys that are misused, can be stored away temporarily. You can prevent some damage by removing items such as scissors, crayons, or markers from the room in advance.
Releasing your child from time-out
To be released, your child must perform a successful time-out. That means staying in time-out for the required number of minutes. Your child can leave when the timer rings or you announce, "Time-out is over. You can come out now." Many parents of children over 4 years old require that they be quiet at the end of time-out. If your child is still noisy when the timer rings, you can reset the timer for one minute.
Once time-out is over, treat your child normally and start with a clean slate. Do not apologize for setting limits and do not insist that your child apologize for his/her behavior. That can make your child feel he/her has been labeled a bad person.
What Can I Do When My Younger Child Refuses To Stay In Time-Out?
If your child escapes from time-out (gets up from the chair or spot), return him/her back quickly and reset the timer. This approach works for most children. If your child refuses to stay in time-out, take action rather than arguing or scolding.
A strong-willed child of 2 or 3 may need to be held in time-out temporarily to reinforce that you mean what you say. Place your child in the time-out chair and hold him/her by the shoulders from behind. You can release your hold once your child stops trying to escape. Then avoid eye contact and any more talking.
Do not yell, scream or lose your temper. This may only make the problem worse. Smile and remain calm. Your child will quickly realize that your actions in disciplining him/her do not bother you. Following this advice will teach your child that escape attempts will not be tolerated.
Several options can be used for the young children who continues to resist staying in time-out:
What Can I Do When My Older Child Refuses To Stay In Time-Out?
An older child can be defined as one who is too strong for the parent to hold in a time-out chair. In general, any child older than 5 years who does not take time-out quickly should be considered a refuser, and you should escalate to a consequence that works.
You can extend the time-out, adding one extra minute for each minute of delay. If five minutes pass and your child still has not gone to time-out, you can ground him/her.
"Grounded" in the younger child means no TV, radio, stereo, video games, toys, telephone access, outside play, snacks, or friends over. Once you have instituted a punishment, try not to give in because you feel sorry for your child. This will only make future attempts more difficult.
"Grounded" in the older child or teenager should concentrate on taking away certain privileges for a set period of time. You should clearly establish what you consider inappropriate behavior and spell out what you expect from your child. You and your child should discuss beforehand the consequences of any inappropriate behavior, so there will be no surprises. Grounding can include the following: taking away driving and/or phone privileges, not going out on weekends with friends, etc.
After grounding your child, walk away and do not have anymore conversation. Grounding ends only after your child takes the regular time-out plus any penalty time. In the older child, the length of grounding will depend on the grounding arrangements made with your child.
Let our office know if your child does not respond to our suggestions.
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If Time-Out Does Not Work, What Other Options Do I Have?
Parents sometimes become discouraged with time-out because their child immediately misbehaves in the same way when they release him/her from time-out. Other children improve temporarily, but by the next day are repeating the behavior the parent is trying to stop. Some children refuse to go to time-out or will not stay there. None of these situations means that time-out should be abandoned.
With a 2 to 5-year-old child, time-out is your trump card. There is not some better, medical approach. If you use time-out repeatedly, consistently, and correctly, your child will eventual improve. The following recommendations can help you improve your skills in applying time-out:
Dr. Bob’s Keys To Effective Discipline
DISCIPLINE: Your child requires some form of discipline at every stage of his/ her life. It is important that your child learns the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior at an early age. The following list contains suggestions that you may find helpful in developing your own pattern of discipline.
Adapted from Barton Schmitt: Your Child's Health, Ed 2. New York, NY, Bantam Books, Inc., 1991.