So you've heard great things about the magic of time-out -- the disciplinary tactic of removing a misbehaving child from the action for a dose of quiet time -- only it seems to have no effect on your little one? Here's guidance on how to resolve the five most common problems faced by parents who try time-out with a toddler.
My child just ignores me.
If your 1- or 2-year-old looks at you blankly or runs the other way when you call time-out, she may not be developmentally ready for this tactic. You'll likely find other disciplinary strategies more effective -- and less exhausting. Keep in mind that children of this age are busy exploring and experimenting, and what may appear to be a tendency to get into mischief is actually normal inquisitiveness. The best strategies for keeping your child safe and under control are childproofing your home and watching her closely. Simply put, this means limiting her opportunities for getting into trouble.
Because toddlers are long on curiosity and short on attention, it's easy to use distraction to redirect your child to more suitable activities. For example, if she's fascinated by the cat's tail, engage her interest in a toy instead. If she insists on coloring on the table, substitute a paintbrush and a cup of water for her crayons.
My child won't stay put.
Most toddlers find it hard to sit still for more than a few seconds, let alone two to three minutes. Before your child turns 3, don't feel you must follow the one-minute-per-year guideline for determining the length of a time-out. As soon as your child has calmed down and switched gears, the time-out has served its purpose.
What if the problem is getting your child to her time-out place? You'll need to teach her to settle herself there. Lead her to the designated place, and calmly tell her to sit down. If she runs away, avoid an elaborate chase and don't get exasperated. Coolly lead her back to the time-out spot. If she continues to resist, simply sit her down wherever you catch her. Sit next to her or hold her firmly on your lap for the duration of the time-out. Don't show your anger or lecture your child; a matter-of-fact attitude works best.
My child gets into more trouble during a time-out.
Even though the idea is to remove your attention, you always need to keep an eye on a toddler. For this reason, it's best not to use a young child's bedroom as the time-out place. (Also, your child is still learning to sleep well on her own, so her bedroom should be a sanctuary rather than a site for discipline.) Choose a chair or a corner that's in your sight but away from toys, the TV, and windows, or use a playpen with no toys in it. Make sure your chosen location is safe for a toddler. Pretend to ignore your child -- that is, go about your business without talking to her -- but monitor her using your peripheral vision.
Time-outs only make tantrums worse.
Tantrums -- those screaming, kicking fits that overcome most toddlers now and then -- are developmentally normal. They tend to burst forth when your child gets especially frustrated, angry, or disappointed -- usually because you won't let her have or do something, and she lacks both the verbal skills to express her feelings and the emotional skills to cope with them.
As you've discovered, forcing your toddler to sit still just makes her madder. Time-out isn't the best approach in such a situation, because you aren't dealing with an act of willful disobedience. A child having a tantrum has lost control, and only she can regain it -- your interference won't help. It's usually best to let a tantrum burn itself out. Hard as it is, do your best to ignore the fuss.
It seems as though we spend half the day in time-out.
Your toddler is constantly exploring -- the world is one big experiment to her. She wants to discover what things are, how they work, and what she may and may not do. Along the way, of course, she does plenty of things that she's not supposed to do, from pulling books off shelves to tossing her Cheerios off the high chair. You can't rely on time-out to correct every naughty act, though; not only will your toddler find it hard to connect her actions with all those time-outs, but you don't want to risk stifling her natural curiosity.
Try to distinguish between intentional disobedience and mere inquisitiveness. It's best to ignore things she does that are irritating but harmless, such as dumping out the contents of a box or pulling the petals off a flower. These acts just show that she's a normal, intelligent child. Steer her behavior from trouble spots, substituting a less destructive activity. Don't be afraid to say no. Above all, provide positive reinforcement -- praise, hugs, and kisses -- to let her know when she's doing something right.
National Institute of Child Health & Human Development
Lyndon Waugh, M.D., and Letitia Sweitzer. Tired of Yelling: Teaching Our Children to Resolve Conflict. 2000. Pocket Books.
Shure, Myrna B., and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo. Raising a Thinking Child: Helping Your Young Child Resolve Everyday Conflicts and Get Along With Others. 1996. Pocket Books.
Gordon, Thomas. Discipline That Works: Promoting Self-Discipline in Children. 1991. Plume Penguin.
Curwin, Richard L., Allen N. Mendler, and Brian D. Mendler. Discipline with Dignity: New Challenges, New Solutions, Third Edition. 2008. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.