Time out isn’t really working in your home, is it? It’s OK. You can admit it. Because you aren’t alone. In my experience as a family coach, time-out is rarely a five minute affair. It’s usually 20 minutes of wrangling a child to a specific chair and struggling to keep said child in that chair. Alternatively, parents banish children to their rooms but then have to wrestle the door knob to ensure the child doesn’t escape before finishing the exile.
This is not how time-out was intended. Time-out is an excellent tool for parents to use to help children learn appropriate behavior. The idea is for parents to remove a child from receiving any attention and benefits for misbehavior (like biting, hitting, or throwing toys).
When time-out is administered correctly, any reinforcement for the negative behavior is removed. Behavior that is not effective in obtaining benefits for children is quickly abandoned (The opposite is also true. Keep reading). That’s the point of the time-out: to remove the benefits of misbehavior briefly so the child learns a more appropriate way to garner attention or rewards.
But what often happens after a child blatantly breaks a house rule, is parents offer a strong lecture before entering the battle of wills required to keep the child in time-out. The lecture and any attention given to the child in an attempt to make him stay in the chair only serves as further reinforcement. When behavior is reinforced in any way it is likely to be repeated.
Just watch a child try to escape from time-out. It’s a fun game to the child even if he or she eventually gets in trouble. Kids feel powerful, and they love a good chase. When parents continue to provide excess attention and a fun power struggle, kids will continue to use time-out for their own benefit.
There are a few common misconceptions about time-out that may also be impeding your success. Time-out is not a punishment. No, really, it isn’t. It’s simply a way to break a behavior pattern and allow the child to move on to a more appropriate behavior. Time-out should not be timed according to the child’s age. It’s best to get a child in and out quickly before he becomes invested in starting more trouble. Aim for 2-4 minutes.
And as opposed to popular opinion, you don’t need a specific location for time-out. It’s fine to suggest a spot, but if the child doesn’t go willingly, just remove attention until the child stops the behavior. At that point you can reengage.
Now that you know what an effective time-out is and isn’t, here are the steps to follow for an effective time-out. Remembering to focus on the purpose and not interfere with the process are the keys to success.
1. Immediately following the undesirable behavior, say, “You are in time-out for [fill in the behavior]. Go to [a place away from you for the time-out].
2. If the child is younger than six, take him by the hand and walk him to the location.
3. Just before walking away, say, “You are in time-out until you calm down and are ready to [apologize, clean up, stop doing whatever sent child to time-out].”
4. Ignore any attempt to garner attention including not staying in the spot.
5. Listen carefully. As soon as child is quiet, end the time-out.
6. Reengage the child by very briefly reminding her why you put her in time-out.
7. Repair as needed by having the child apologize and/or clean up. This is an important step because the time-out isn’t an escape from doing what is required. If the child is excused after the time-out without doing the repair, it is possible the behavior that put the child in the time-out will be reinforced.
8. Move on after the time-out, as if the behavior never happened. You might still be frustrated or angry. Suppress all signs of it and act positively toward your child. Quickly try to praise child for any appropriate behavior exhibited.
Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW is the author of “IGNORE IT! How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction,” on shelves today!