Time-out is a method of checking misbehavior by removing your child from her current situation for a few minutes of quiet time. It's a great way to help your child calm down and regroup. Between the ages of 3 and 6, children are intensively learning rules and testing limits. Time-out can be particularly useful in establishing these, as long as you apply it consistently. Here are eight ways to make the technique work for you.
1. Decide what merits a time-out.
Find a quiet moment to discuss a time-out policy for your household, determining where you'll give time outs, for what reasons, and for how long. This way there won't be any surprises, you won't need to make decisions in haste, and you can approach your first time-out feeling prepared and composed.
If you use time-out too often, you'll dilute its effectiveness, so save it for the tougher problems -- aggressive acts like biting, hitting, and throwing toys, or open defiance of your rules and instructions. For lesser offenses, rely on tactics like verbal reprimands or redirecting your child to another activity.
2. Give fair warning.
Instead of springing a time-out on your child, alert her that she'll get one if she continues to act up. This gives her the opportunity to regulate her own behavior first. At this age children often get riled up without realizing it and can calm themselves when given a reminder. Some kids dislike time-outs so much that eventually the warning itself does the job. Warnings are not enough, though, when it comes to striking out physically; if your child hits, kicks, or bites someone, intervene with a time-out right away.
3. Explain why you're using time-out.
In a few matter-of-fact words, let your child know the reason she's getting a time-out. You might say, "You're yelling, even though I've asked you to use an indoor voice. You need a time-out to calm down." Or, "Hitting is not allowed. You need a time-out to think about what you did." Remember, the purpose is to reinforce rules. Though it's hard not to get heated, scolding will make your child feel belittled and may make her more rebellious. And handling your frustration in a calm manner will set an example for her of how she might manage her own strong emotions. Stick to a dispassionate explanation of cause and effect.
4. Pick a location.
Kids respond well to routine, so it's a good idea to designate a time-out place, such as a chair, the end of a hallway, or the bottom step of a staircase. The place you choose needs to be safe and shouldn't be frightening (no basements, closets, or other isolated spaces).
Lyndon Waugh, author of Tired of Yelling, suggests naming a "thinking chair," which reinforces the idea that a time-out is an opportunity to reflect. But if it suits the circumstances, you can simply call a time-out on the spot.
The experts are divided on whether you should send your child to her room for a time-out. Some say that the place you choose should be, above all, dull. There should be no positive reinforcers -- no TV, no toys, no one to talk to. Other experts feel that sending a child to her room serves the purpose of defusing wound-up behavior. Your child also suffers the consequence of being removed from all the action and fun. Never lock the door, though, or hold the door shut.
5. Decide how long time-outs will last.
A time-out needs to be only long enough to make your point. That is, your child should have sufficient time to stop misbehaving and calm down, but not so much that she forgets her transgression or becomes frustrated at being held captive. Many experts recommend one minute per year of your child's age. You can watch the clock yourself or set a timer and tell her she can get up when it rings.
6. Trust in your own authority.
Even if you're furious, act calm when giving a time-out. It's important for your child to know that you're the one in control. Remember that discipline is really a way of teaching your child about appropriate behavior and reactions. Shouting, "That's enough! You get to the time-out chair this instant!" doesn't exactly demonstrate control. In fact, the approach can backfire if you're too angry or if your child perceives you as vindictive. She may just wonder if you're the one who could use a time-out! Or you may end up hearing your tone and language coming out of her mouth; children are remarkably good at observing and mimicking their parents.
Also, don't overexplain or justify your actions with a long speech, and resist getting ensnared in a conversation about the time-out or the behavior that led to it. Finally, never waffle. It's tempting to revoke a time-out when your child promises to be good, but that doesn't help either of you in the long run. Show you mean business by using a confident, even tone and by standing firm on what you say.
7. Restate the cause.
A good way to end a time-out is by summarizing the reason for it one last time and encouraging your child to continue working on the issue that landed her in the hot seat. Try, "You can go and play now. But remember, no hitting." Or, "Can you remember to use your quiet voice now? No more screaming." Resist the temptation to lecture or demand an apology -- and don't bring up the incident later on. You've made your point, and nagging is only likely to upset or embarrass your child.
You might feel the urge to hug your child after a time-out. That's okay, but if you lavish too much affection and sympathy on her after a time-out, you risk positively reinforcing misbehavior. It's probably best just to let her go after a time-out. Allow some time to pass, and then, in the ordinary course of the day, give her hugs and kisses that aren't linked to the time-out.
8. Use time-out consistently.
Once you've determined your time-out triggers, be sure to follow through with one every time the undesirable behavior occurs. Enforcing a rule today and letting it slide tomorrow confuses your child. If she thinks she has a chance of getting away with something naughty, you can bet she'll persist. Furthermore, when you adhere to certain standards, your child absorbs them over time and eventually will use them to determine for herself what is acceptable conduct and what isn't; these values give her a foundation for controlling her own behavior.
National Institute of Child Health & Human Development
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.
Lyndon Waugh, M.D., and Letitia Sweitzer. Tired of Yelling: Teaching Our Children to Resolve Conflict. 2000. Pocket Books.