When Time-Out Isn't Working
Time-out is an effective strategy for helping to change your child's behavior. However, there are several pitfalls that many parents commonly encounter. Keep the following tips in mind as you try to use time-out most effectively.
Know when to use time-out. Choose in advance which behaviors will result in a time-out and discuss these choices with your child. He should see time-out as his chance to cool down and think about his behavior. This opportunity to cool off also can be helpful for parents.
Time-out is most useful for aggressive, harmful or disruptive behaviors that cannot be ignored and need an immediate response. Time-out works well for these types of behaviors, such as hitting, kicking, biting or throwing things, because children understand the connection between their behavior and the punishment ("If I hit, I go to time out."). Time-out is especially helpful for aggressive behaviors because it teaches peaceful problem solving. Time-outs are usually not necessary and often less effective for less-harmful behaviors that generally can be ignored, such as temper tantrums or whining.
Make sure you mean it when you say it. Time-out rarely works if you threaten to use it without following through. If you find yourself constantly saying, "If you don't stop it, you're going to time-out!" but rarely giving a time-out, your child has probably learned that it's likely an empty threat not very effective in changing behavior. It is critically important to be consistent. If you say, "One more time and you're going to time-out," then follow through and do it! However, since you have decided in advance which behaviors will result in time-out and discussed this with your child, warnings should not be necessary. Once you've decided to give a time-out, no amount of apologizing, tears or negotiation should change that decision.
Make sure time-out is actually happening. How many times has your child, while supposedly in time-out, wandered around asking for a drink or made a trip to the bathroom? Kids tend to be pretty smart and quickly figure out that time-out isn't so bad if they are able to get up from the time-out chair.
Time-out must be enforced, so that it actually happens. If your child refuses to stay in time-out, place her in the time-out chair and hold her gently but firmly by the shoulders from behind for the duration of time-out. There should be no discussion or negotiation during this time; you can say, "You're in time-out because you bit your brother, and we'll discuss it after time-out."
Make sure the place is right. Remember that time-out works because it removes your child from his favorite activities AND because it takes him away from your attention. If your time-out spot is in the center of the family room where your child can still feel like he's part of the action, time-out will not be effective.
Make sure the time-out chair is in a boring place, facing a blank wall or corner, where he cannot see television or other people. Often the chair is placed in a hallway or an adjacent room, so the parent can keep an eye on the child. Some younger children may have difficulty being separated from parents. In that case, put the chair in the same room but be careful not to make eye contact with the child. Never allow your child to take any playthings with him to the time-out chair.
Make sure time-out doesn't last too long. Do not keep your child in time-out for more than about one minute for each year of age (for example, about three minutes for a 3 year old). Beyond that time, kids begin to forget why they are sitting in the time-out chair in the first place, so the technique becomes much less effective in changing behavior. Use a portable kitchen timer to mark the end of time-out. Your child is more likely to obey an objective timer than you.
Don't forget time in! Always reward your child for good behavior. Praise him for doing things that you want to encourage (for example, sharing a toy or playing quietly while you are on the phone). Give him lots of physical affection, and try to spend 10 to 15 minutes each day doing an activity he enjoys. Make sure your child knows that he will get more attention from you for positive behaviors, not for negative behaviors.
Last updated May 29, 2011