When your child acts up, often the best way to nip the behavior in the bud is to remove him from the activity at hand and give him some quiet time alone. This technique, known as time-out, is a great, nonviolent way to shape behavior. But the key to success is knowing the right time and way to introduce it. Here are six secrets to making the technique work.
Understand what time-out is -- and isn't.
Think of time-out as an opportunity to teach your child how to cope with common frustrations and modify his behavior, rather than as a punishment. While your child is in time-out, he's on his own, so don't give him attention or other positive reinforcement, such as words of consolation or hugs. Don't scold, yell, or speak angrily, either -- just let him sit in solitude for a few moments. This quiet time allows him to switch gears and calm down if he's gotten worked up, while giving you the chance to step aside before getting heated up and caught in a struggle. What's great about time-out is that it can defuse and redirect an escalating situation in an unemotional way. It lets you teach your child without setting a negative example, the way yelling does.
Don't start too early.
Wait until your child is at least 2-years-old to introduce time-outs. Before that age, he'll feel he's being punished but won't understand why, since he can't yet connect his actions with your reactions. If you hold off until your child starts to appreciate the need to follow rules, you won't get frustrated and abandon the strategy prematurely.
Because toddlers find it hard to sit still, trying to make your child stay in a certain place for a prescribed length of time is likely to disintegrate into a chase scene: Your child runs away, delighted with this new game; you catch him, then struggle to make him stay in one place. You threaten, he laughs. You grab, he bolts. Meanwhile, because toddlers have short attention spans, your child forgets why you wanted him to sit still in the first place. Instead of helping your child regain his self-control, you find yourself in a power struggle.
Toddlers are constantly exploring and experimenting, so it's important to distinguish between this natural inquisitiveness and willful disobedience. When a child is this young, the best strategies for keeping him out of trouble may be childproofing your home to reduce the opportunities for mischief and distraction to redirect him to more suitable activities.
Modify time-out for a young toddler.
Before your child is ready for a solitary time-out, you can introduce the idea by taking what some parenting experts call a "positive time-out" together. This strategy works well once a toddler is around 18-months-old. When your child gets revved up and borders on losing control, try saying, "Let's take a time-out to read a book until we feel better." Any quiet activity, such as listening to music, lying down, or putting together a simple puzzle, will work.
Taking a time-out with you gets your child used to the idea of a cooling-off period. It disrupts the spiral of negative behavior while avoiding the battle of wills that a more formal time-out can incite.
When your child can follow simple directions and has a slightly longer attention span than he did in early toddlerhood, he's ready for a more traditional time-out. As he approaches the age of 3, you'll probably notice that he's better able to understand cause and effect, too. But don't spring the tactic on him in a burst of frustration -- time-out works best if it's explained ahead of time. Use simple terms: "When you get too wild or act in a way that Mommy and Daddy don't think is a good idea, I will call, 'Time-out.' That means you will sit in this chair for a little while until you can calm yourself down." Some parents find it useful to act this out or to use a doll or teddy bear to demonstrate taking a time-out.
Be flexible on the specifics.
With a 2-year-old, your goal is simply to introduce the idea of an enforced break in the action. Such an interruption can be upsetting enough to a hard-charging, egocentric toddler. Insisting that he sit in a certain place, in a certain way, for a certain length of time may be too much for him. Instead of marching him to a special chair, consider just having him put his head on the floor, right where he is. Go easy, too, in determining how long he needs to stay there. (Don't start following the commonly suggested one-minute-per-year rule until your child is at least 3.) Thirty seconds to a minute is generally appropriate for a toddler. The period should be long enough to refocus his attention but not so long that he gets frustrated. One idea: Have him sit long enough to say his ABCs once or twice, then redirect him to a different activity.
Don't expect miracles.
As you've no doubt discovered for yourself, toddlers are notoriously active, willful, and unpredictable. This is normal, though admittedly tough on parents, and the only solution is plenty of patience. Testing limits and observing a parent's reactions -- over and over again -- is a toddler's way of establishing a solid understanding of his world. Your child may repeatedly toss food off his high chair to see if it continues to fall on the floor and not rise to the ceiling. He may misbehave in precisely the same way he did yesterday just to make sure it's still "not okay." So consistency in your responses is very important.
No single disciplinary approach -- including time-out -- will transform your 1-, 2-, or 3-year-old into an obedient angel. But learning what behaviors are appropriate at your child's age will help you keep your expectations realistic.
On the other hand, if your child has a compliant personality, you may be lucky enough never to need time-out. A parent's requests and redirection are often sufficient for these children. You may also find that using the positive time-out technique -- changing the pace to a leisurely activity -- works well throughout your youngster's childhood.
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.