Every once in a while, when you're at your wit's end, you give your child a time-out, but it never seems to work. Maybe he throws a tantrum or refuses to sit still and goes running through the house. Don't give up. Time-out -- checking misbehavior by removing your child from his current situation for a few minutes of quiet time -- is one of the most effective strategies in the parental game plan. It might simply be that your technique could use a tune-up. Here are eight of the most common problems and what to do about them.
My child doesn't take time-outs seriously.
Consistency is the key here: Don't call a time-out today but skip it tomorrow for the same behavior because you're in a better mood. And always follow through on a warning if your child doesn't heed you.
It's also important to give the time-out immediately. Don't wait 30 minutes -- or even five -- until it's more convenient. If you're out in public, give the time-out right where you are. At the supermarket, you might have your child sit on the floor in an out-of-the-way corner, though you can take him to the car if he's out of control. If you wait until you get home, you lose the opportunity to teach your child about appropriate conduct and how to collect himself. As soon as a time-out is disconnected from the immediate behavior, it becomes a threat, and then a punishment, teaching your child little. Remember that the point of time-out is not to make your child quake in his Keds. It's simply to help him (and you) cool off and regain self-control.
My child thinks it's a big game.
Your attitude cues your child: If you're serious about time-out, he'll have to be, too. A cool, matter-of-fact demeanor works best. If your facial expression or tone of voice betrays exasperation, your child is sure to pick up on it. And, of course, you have to keep a straight face, no matter how amusing your child's response to your giving him a time-out, whether he's pouting or trying to wheedle his way out of it.
My child won't stay put.
If your child refuses to go to his time-out place and stay there, he needs your help. Walk him over to the chosen spot, and calmly instruct him to sit down. If he springs up, sit him back down again. You don't want to let these jack-in-the-box pop-ups become a game, though. If your child gets up a third time, simply sit down with him and hold him in your arms for the duration of the time-out. Do this consistently and without scolding. It goes without saying that you should never jerk or force your child to his time-out spot.
If a kindergartner or older child won't stay in a time-out, let him know that there will be a consequence. This might be extending the length of the time-out or taking away another privilege afterward.
My child cries and yells through the whole time-out.
It's upsetting to listen to, but a dramatic show of tears doesn't mean the time-out isn't working. Angry protests are hard for young children to stifle. Your child doesn't have to sit as quiet as a monk to learn something from this suspension of activity. Your mission is to ignore the hubbub. Trying to get your child to quiet down only creates a new power struggle and distracts from the point you're trying to make. Most kids calm down eventually. Even if yours doesn't, the key is whether he continues to misbehave after the time-out. If his manners and composure improve, you've made your point.
It may help to begin a time-out before your child reaches a total meltdown. Intervene with warnings or diversionary tactics at the first signs of escalating misbehavior. If those don't work, go promptly to time-out.
If your child is older than 4, it often works to tell him that if he doesn't quiet down, the time-out will be twice as long. And remind him that this period is for thinking, not talking.
After a time-out, my child goes right back to what he was doing wrong.
Give it time. When parents try a new approach, behavior often gets worse before it gets better. Your child is testing to see if you'll really stand fast. If the misbehavior persists, immediately give your child another time-out. Use the technique consistently, even if it seems to have no effect. Briefly explain the purpose: "You need to think some more about what I said."
Time-outs make my child angrier, not calmer.
Take care to match the length of the time-out to your child's age and attention span. If the break lasts too long, it no longer serves the purpose of interrupting negative behavior. Instead, your child grows restless and resentful -- and even more likely to misbehave. One minute per year is a handy guideline, though not an absolute. Five minutes is an eternity to most kindergartners.
It's also important to make time-out just one of many tactics you employ when your child misbehaves. Sometimes parents fall into the habit of automatically calling time-out when less drastic responses could succeed. Give your child alternatives, for example, to help him think through the consequences of his actions: "If you want to play catch, let's go outside. If you want to stay inside, you need to find another game." If the ball-throwing continues, you can move to a warning: "If you don't stop throwing your ball in the house, you'll get a time-out to think about what I said." This strategy sets up two possible resolutions before you move to time-out.
I can't seem to pull off time-outs away from home.
This is a portable tactic. Even if you've designated a chair for time-outs at home, you can still use the basic idea when you're out in public. Simply find a relatively quiet spot to take your child. It could be a park bench, your car, or one of the less busy aisles at the grocery store. Use a calm, low voice to avoid embarrassing him and riling him further. Try to shrug off any embarrassment you feel yourself; remember, you're just doing your job as a parent.
Time-out worked for a while but doesn't anymore.
When time-out loses its potency, the reason is often that it's being overused. Your child no longer views it as a fresh opportunity to calm down and think. Instead, it's become a repressive response to every act of mild rebellion. Remember that time-out is the withdrawal of parental attention. For it to work, your child must receive plenty of positive feedback when he's being good. Respond to your child when he's his usual charming and agreeable self; spend time with him, and really listen to him. Show your affection with both words and hugs. Time-outs soon regain their power when you save them for the moments you're certain nothing else will work.
National Institute of Child Health & Human Development
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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.