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Time for a Time-Out?

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Time-out may seem like a simple concept, but sometimes in the heat of the moment, the how-to’s of time-out can get confusing and murky for parents.

First of all, time-out has its limitations. The best way to help your child build her social skills and boost her self-regulation (which she ultimately needs to manage her own behavior) is to stay engaged with her, help her label her feelings, and offer suggestions before crisis hits.

Still, some parents find time-outs helpful for an extreme situation, especially when they feel overwhelmed or in danger of acting impulsively. If you want to use time-out but you don’t think it’s working, consider these common time-out flaws and their fixes:

You’re constantly reacting: Time-outs are fine if something has already gone down and you need to send the message that it’s not okay. But you’ll be much more effective and helpful to your kids if you watch and intervene before things go awry. That means anticipating and tuning in to your little one, instead of just reacting to the behavior after the fact. If you know she’s tired, hungry, or over-stimulated, address it early.

Equally important, if you have a hint that your child is emotionally sensitive – let’s say she’s frustrated because you’re busy chatting to another mom at a play date, or she’s playing with new friends for the first time – briefly address that, too, so she feels understood. When you notice her sliding (but before the outburst occurs), say: “Sweetie, I wonder if you’re having a hard time because mommy is talking when you want me to play with you?” or “It’s different playing with new friends, huh? Let’s think of an activity you could both do.” Anything that lets her know you see her and helps her name the brewing emotions, will help curb a tantrum or breakdown.

You approach time-out as punishment: In behavioral psychology terms, time-outs are a “negative punishment,” but that’s just a technical term meaning they decrease the frequency of the behavior that occurred right before. Don’t think of time-out as a punishment or something you’re doing to your child out of anger, but instead frame it as, “calming your body down,” “time to check in,” or “keeping your body safe.” Time-outs are not meant to be scary or even unpleasant – they’re a way of slowing your child down and giving her time to reflect and collect herself.

You use time-out for the wrong reasons: Time-outs are best left for behaviors you want to decrease, not increase. Let’s say you’re trying to get your child to leave the house and follow your directions to pee, put clothes on, brush teeth and so forth, but she keeps fiddling with her crayons and ignoring your pleas. You want to increase her direction-following, so a time-out is not in order. Here, you’re better off with a sticker system or some reinforcement to increase compliance.

You talk too much: A whole lot of words in time-out will not get you far. It’s important to talk to your little one in brief, easy-to-digest sentences. Before she acts out, say things like: “I see you’re getting upset. You’re frustrated your little sister keeps messing up your game?” But once you’ve decided a time-out is necessary, keep things short and don’t negotiate or talk too much. If your child keeps getting up, continue to lead her back to the time-out space with little or no words except something like, “It’s time to calm your body down.”

You forget the positive: If you feel like you’re overusing time-out, you may be in a negative cycle with your child in which she’s constantly trying to get your attention and engage you (even if it’s with her difficult behavior). See if you can spend some quality time with her and enjoy each other’s company.

You’re too emotional: There’s something disorienting, overwhelming, and scary to a little kid about seeing her parent lose his marbles (we all do it sometimes). Time -outs should not be emotionally chaotic – if you can, say to your child in a clear and confident tone that it’s time to calm her body down (or whatever language you use), and then take time to collect yourself, too.

You give too many warnings: It’s important to give one clear warning. For example, if your toddler hits a friend and you feel a time-out is necessary, get down on her eye level and say, “It’s not okay to hit. That hurts your friends.” After you’ve asked your child to check-in with her friend to see if she’s okay or needs anything (avoid rote apologies, the check-in is more helpful), then give one warning: “If you hit again, we’ll need to take a time-out.” More than that and the warnings become empty.

You need to tweak your place and time: Keep a time-out short – one minute for every year of a child’s age is the gold standard, but that can even be too long for a two-year-old. And make sure it’s a place that’s safe (not scary), but free of diversions. Don’t make time-out in your child’s crib, which you really want associated with sleep. If you’re in public, a bench will do. Avoid telling your child she will have a time-out at some later point in the day. Little kids are creatures of the moment, so when the moment passes, try to move on and get back to your usual activities and enjoying each other.

You expect a resolution: A lot of parents expect to talk sense into their little ones when they misbehave, sometimes sequestering them for a whole session of explaining, asking, “Do you understand?” and looking for a heartfelt apology. But this is developmentally off base. Toddlers and preschoolers operate in the now – make sure you’re not expecting them to reconcile and make up the way adults do.

Instead, tell a story about the incident. Say, later on, “Remember earlier today, you hit your friend? Seemed like you were feeling angry that she took your toy. She was pretty upset and so were you. And then you needed to take a break to calm your body down.” You’re way more likely to elicit some feedback from your child this way. Even if you don’t, know that she’s filed the story away somewhere in her brain, and it will help her make sense of what happened.

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