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Effective Time-Out Techniques

"Time-out" is literally the pause that interrupts inappropriate behavior. For some, it refreshes as well, giving the kids (and you) a chance to cool down. Many parenting experts recommend a rigid procedure, including the use of a specific location and a set time period.


Others have adopted a more flexible approach that can be used anywhere. There's really no need to "schlep" that chair, since there's no one right way to do it; tailor your time-out approach to what works best for your child. When your child breaks a rule, immediately and matter-of-factly stop the dangerous or inappropriate behavior by saying "Time-out."


Define which behaviors warrant a time-out and use it each time the behavior occurs. Many parents reserve time-out for hitting and hurting others, destroying property, using "bad words," and out-of-control behavior. Other methods, such as distraction, work for less serious offenses.

Use the words "Time-out for..." as you immediately identify the bad behavior verbally for the child. Example: Sally calmly told her son, "Whoops! Time-out for punching your sister." Remember, time-out as we define it does not teach your child anything; it only mandates a STOP to an undesirable behavior, while preserving the dignity of both you and your child.


Give your child the words he needs to use next time something happens. After giving four-year-old Sammy numerous time-outs for hitting, Eric, his dad, modeled the correct response for his son: "Michael, Sammy is upset. He wants to tell you that he would like a turn now."


Note that some parents and teachers call a time-out before the aggressive or dangerous behavior happens. If you have a very active, easily distracted child, watch for the signs that the bad behavior is brewing and call a time-out to allow the child to cool down and regroup before he gets in trouble.


Decide whether you will remove your child to an isolated location, away from toys and the attention of family members. Is it helpful for your child to spend some time alone cooling down, or does he just become more furious and uncooperative in isolation? Consider letting your child decide when he is ready to join others.


Praise your child for staying in the designated time-out location if you use one. Realize that time-out can be flexible; it doesn't have t be limited to one chair, one location, or even a "place" at all. While one designated time-out place at home may work best, you may need to use time-out at Grandma's, or even in the bank.


Consider giving a quick hug or a smile to welcome your child back after a time-out.


Guide your preschooler away from trouble when time-out is over. After time-out, five-year-olds often can go right back into the original situation and behave appropriately, but sometimes they need your help. Many younger kids don't do well going back to the scene of the confrontation; distraction works better for them.


Remember that young children have little understanding of the passage of time; instead of saying, "Time-out for three minutes," try using a timer, bell, or whistle as a signal.


Try to keep an eye on your child and "catch her" being good. Then reward her with a compliment. "I notice how nicely you're sharing your puzzle, Laura. Doesn't it feel good to be kind?"


Use time-out, like a strong spice, sparingly. If used for every offense, time-out can lose its effectiveness.


Discuss time-out together as a family; consider including when and why it will be used, where it will take place, and how long it will last. Invite your kids' participation in the discussion.


Continue to teach the lesson outside the heat of the moment. Talk with your children about their behavior again during bath time, bedtime, story time, or in a more formal family meeting.


Remember that unacceptable behavior does not change instantly.


Use the word "time-out" in various ways to reinforce the meaning; it may catch on sooner than you think!

  • Donna told the kids, "Mommy needs a time-out in her room. I'm too angry to talk to you right now."

  • When Sally's boys were fighting over the same toy, she quickly stepped in and said, "Time-out for the fire truck. This toy needs a break until we can figure out how to take turns."


Time-out Tips

  • Think of time out as an acceptable verbalization that serves to stop the dangerous or inappropriate behavior immediately.

  • Does a child have to be relocated for at time-out? That depends on that works for your child and you. Some children are better able to calm down and regroup in a designated place. Others fall apart at the thought of sitting on a "time-out" chair for the purpose of calming down or of contemplating their poor behavior.

  • A time-out can be brief; it's not meant to be a punishment or "doing time for the crime." Some experts recommend using one minute per year of age as a general time frame for "cooling down." However, many kids need only a few seconds to regroup.

  • Use time-out for only the most serious of offenses; otherwise, it will lose its effect.

  • If time-out is not comfortable for you to implement, or if it isn't effective with your child, stop using it.


The bottom line: Kids need you to help them put the brakes on bad behavior until they learn to do it themselves; time-out is one way to immediately stop bad behavior and help everyone regroup. The trick is not to let time-out itself lead to a power struggle.

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