Use “time out” effectively

Parents often turn to time out as their “go to” punishment for misbehavior. Time out can be an effective positive discipline technique if used with some simple guidelines.

Time out is one positive discipline technique that parents can use when children choose to act inappropriately. Many parents use this as their first line of defense. However, if time outs are over used or not implemented in a consistent manner, it can become ineffective and lead to more undesirable outcomes. An easy way to think of time out is to think like a reporter and consider the who, what, when, where, why and how.

Time out is appropriate for children over the age of two. For children under two the best form of positive discipline is verbal and physical redirection. For example, if your 18 month old child is jumping on the couch you can pick them up; put them on the floor and say, “The floor is for jumping”. Move them to an appropriate activity or place and tell them exactly what you want them to do.

Time out is a temporary removal from any social interaction for a short period of time because children chose to act inappropriately. A general guideline is that to start with one minute per age.

Time out should be reserved for specific misbehaviors that cannot be ignored. For example, hurting themselves or others, or intentionally destroying things. It should be a part of your family rules, rewards and consequences contract. It helps if children know exactly what the family rules are – what behaviors you expect and what behaviors are not allowed. Rewards for following rules should be abundant and immediate. A reward can be a smile, a hug or an extra story at night. Consequences should be clear and immediate. Think of consequences like a step ladder: first step is a reminder, second step is a warning and the third step is time out.

Time out should be in a boring, safe and well-lit place, but within the view of the parents. Time outs should never be in a closet or basement. If a child is escalating during the time out, they can be moved to their room. If the child chooses to make a mess in their room during time out, then they will need to clean it up once the time out is over.

It lets children know that when they choose to misbehave, the consequence will be to sit alone, quietly. It also gives a child an opportunity to take some time to calm down.

The first step is to teach your children about time out when they are not in trouble. “You sit alone; no one talks to you or listens to you.” Be clear about behaviors will get them sent to time out. “You hit your sister; you chose to break a rule.” Show them where time outs will happen. “The time out spot is this chair.” Explain to them why they have time outs. “Time out is for you to calm down and think about better choices.” Let them know how long time out is going to last. For a four-year-old it will be four minutes – however they must be quiet for at least two minutes. Have a timer you can set to keep track of the time. If you start with four minutes, you can add minutes if the child keeps misbehaving in time out. Parents are always in charge of starting and ending the time out.

It is critical for parents to stay calm and ignore the child who is in time out. For time out to be effective, do not get hooked into interacting with the child. Don’t make eye contact. Try reading a magazine or humming a quiet song and remember to take deep breaths. Do not respond to any pleas, questions, bargaining or other verbal drama. If the child refuses to stay in the chair, calmly let them know you are adding a minute of time. If they still refuse to stay in the chair, you can advance to removing a privilege such as no television or no bike riding.

After the child is calm for two minutes they should have the chance to come out of time out and try again to behave. Parents need to praise the first appropriate behavior they see, once time out is over, thus reinforcing what you want them to do. Most importantly, parents must work to let go of their own angry and frustrated feelings once the time out is over. Move beyond the time out to rebuild and repair your relationship. Be patient with your child and yourself.

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