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Mom to Mom: What to Do When Time Outs Stop Working

Some parents consider time outs to be the gold standard for toddler discipline. I don’t necessarily disagree: they can be a great way to get the message across to younger children that certain behavior just isn’t acceptable. They also give both parent and child a safe space to cool down and have a little break from each other when tempers flare.

But what to do when time outs are no longer an effective way to redirect your child’s behavior?

I’ve seen this happen with my older two children. Between the ages of 3 and 4, they both stopped responding to time out. In anticipation of this same thing happening to my toddler, I’ve given some thought to what to do when time out is no longer the answer.

Take a Look at How You Use Time Out -  As parents, we can get lazy with our discipline. It’s easy to say that you dealt with a problem by simply giving a child a time out. Sometimes we need to evaluate how we use not just time outs, but all of our go-to parenting techniques to determine if they’ve gotten a bit “stale.”

Things to consider: Where is the “time out” spot in your home and how is that working? Are you being inconsistent? Do you wait until the situation has escalated to a temper tantrum before intervening? Are you unintentionally negatively reinforcing the situation by losing your temper?

Communicate Your Expectations- If you find yourself going through the motions of time outs without seeing any change in behavior, try communicating your expectations in a manner your toddler can understand. Remember, they don’t always know why they can’t do certain things and may just be exploring or testing. Talk with them after their time-out is over about why their behavior was unacceptable and what to do instead.

Consider a Time-In- It’s no secret that toddlers need a lot of one-on-one time. Sometimes their behavior isn’t based in defiance but attention seeking. Spending time with your toddler— what is referred to as a “time in”— can help prevent negative behaviors or even be used as an alternative to time outs.

Consider Other Strategies- For some children (like my middle son), time outs are not and will probably never be an effective strategy. What has worked for him has been taking away privileges, enforcing an earlier bedtime, and lots of intensive one-on-one. It’s all about your individual child and what will work best for him individual temperament. (That said, I have to say here that I don’t believe that spanking or other forms of violence are ever acceptable.)

What has been your experience with this? What works when time outs don’t?

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