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Time for a Time-Out?

How to make them effective tools for learning

By Heather Turgeon |

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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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About Heather Turgeon

heatherturgeon

Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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10 thoughts on “Time for a Time-Out?

  1. WIllow says:

    We used to call my nephew “Oscar the Grouch” when he was acting bad and had to go into timeout. Now he’s 15 years old and we still laugh about it!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Good points. Thanks for sharing.
    When I taught pre-school I would explain that in a sports game they use ‘time-out’ all the time. That is where the term came from. The team and the coach needed to figure out a better strategey. Ocassionally I would put myself in ‘time out’ to sit and think how to get the group to focus before my head exploded. The group would get really quiet, “Sh-h Teacher is in time out. She’s thinking.Let’s help her think.” I set the example that this was not a punishment. Even I needed time out to pull my thoughts together. My role-modeling was very effective.

  3. Brandee says:

    I always felt weird about the whole forced apology thing so I’ll definately use the check-in trick you mentioned. Thanks! Oh, the sticker system as a way of getting them to cooperate is a good idea too-love that!

  4. snakecharmer says:

    Good points! I’ve started using time-outs with my daughter and it’s good to revise the ‘rules’ around its use!

  5. Anonymous says:

    I totally agree with this advice. Time outs isolate children. They hit for a reason. There is a NEED that is not being met behind every “asocial” behavior. A time out just tells them that if they have a need and are expressing it in a way their parents don’t like then they have to be alone and they don’t learn HOW to express their needs better, they don’t learn that their parents are their for them when they need them most. The initial need NEVER gets addressed and the resent builds. I’m really surprised a science writer and pscyhotherapist is recommending this at all. HEre’s an article why TIME OUTS DON’T WORK. http://www.sheknows.com/parenting/articles/805746/positive-discipline-why-timeouts-dont-work

    Also, i’m disappointed that babble is promoting this dated approach that not only doesn’t work but THREATENS the parent/child bond.

    As alfie kohn says

    ?”When children are old enough to tell us why they’re unhappy or angry, the question then becomes whether they feel safe enough to do so. Our job is to create that sense of safety, to listen without judgment, to make sure they know they won’t get into trouble for telling us what they’ve done or be condemned for what they feel.”

    But when the live in a culture of punishment (time outs) then kids aren’t likely to share with their parents.

  6. Behavior Analyst Mom says:

    I’m a behavior analyst and time-out isn’t a “negative punishment” ALL punishment decrease the likelihood of behavior occurring again, that’s what makes it a punishment. A negative punishment is when a preferred item is taken away (hence the negative) for instance your child throws a block at his sister so you take away all the blocks you REMOVE an item is what makes it a negative. A positive punishment is when you add a negative stimulus, that is what a time out is. The child performs an inappropriate behavior so you ADD the stimulus of time out. I don’t mean to nit pick but all the facts need to be correct. Also, time-outs only work if you identify the function of the behavior, i.e., why is the child doing the behavior, if your daughter is hitting you to get out of cleaning her toys then putting her in time out isn’t a punishment, its actually a reinforcer because you are removing her from the activity she didn’t want to do.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    I can’t believe people still use timeouts. When my first child was almost 2, we began using them. As soon as we did, I knew we needed something different, I knew I wanted to be able to discuss things with my kids, not sit them somewhere to shame them. I also knew that once they were adults, there would be nobody to put them in time out so they needed to know how to talk to people in real situations. We found conscious discipline, it works very well. It is long term, not short term. Our kids are now 6,5 &3.5, they are great kids that talk to each other about things and have never been to time out. They understand that you don’t hit because it hurts people, not because someone might send them to time out. I work with a lot of kids who hit people (2-3 year olds) when nobody is looking (or so they think).
    My kids are still working on things, but I don’t think we give kids enough credit for being able to teach them at a young age how to handle themselves later.

  9. Anonymous says:

    @behavior analyst mom- time out is, in fact, negative punishment, because the behavior changing consequence is the REMOVAL of access to reinforcement through seclusion. Get your facts straight and stop giving behavior analysts a bad name.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Nice post! We support and use time out. For a laugh and our serious outlook on timeout: http://wisemommies.com/index.php/discipline/44-discipline/145-time-out.html

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