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Using Time Outs with Children: Ten Good Parenting Tips

Updated on April 3, 2013

Anger, yelling, spanking and other types of bad parenting

You’re often frustrated and feel guilty when you react with anger or yelling when your young child or toddler misbehaves. You think getting mad might help discipline your child or maybe you even resort to a spanking on the rear end, but it never really changes the behavior problem. In fact, sometimes the behavior problems just gets worse. Well time out is the probably the most popular technique taught to parents struggling with these issues.

Time out is not just a way to help your kids learn from their behavior problems, it also provides parents with a time out from their own bad parenting. Ya that’s right, I said it. Bad parenting! Yelling at your kids when they make a mistake or giving them a spanking is bad parenting. You may be a great person but those practices went the way of the dodo a few decades ago and if your friends all do it, it doesn’t make it OK. I don't mean to be harsh but...(ya I do...we don't want to change what we are doing wrong unless we feel a little bad about the mistakes we make, so I am purposely being a little harsh). You may be a great parent in a lot of other ways and maybe you are a wonderful person. That doesn’t change the fact that when you are yelling at your young children, getting angry, or even hitting them, you are practicing a really ineffective way of getting compliance from your kids. Most parents do one or more of these things at some point, out of frustration. We all have been frustrated with our kids (OK maybe there are a few saints out there but I don't know them). Nobody is perfect, but it is still not good parenting.

Studies of child behavior problems have shown repeatedly that a strong negative response to a child’s behavior only increases the frequency of the behavior problems. Time outs work when done properly because they allow the parent to address the behavior problems without reinforcing it. When parents take the intensity of their own response to their child's behavior problems down a notch, it allows them to address the unwanted behavior more productively.

Time outs are good parenting

A lot of parents have said to me time outs don’t work! Well they might not be working with their children. This may be the truth in some cases, but it’s hard to know because often parents aren’t doing the time out properly in the first place. Remember, there are no miracle cures to make children 100% compliant. They do have minds of their own. What we are trying to do is encourage them to be less defiant.

Now I am going to assume if you’re still reading you would like to know what the right way is (or you’re just reading for your own amusement or some weird need to critique this article). Is there even a right way? Well there may not be one perfectly right way but some things work better than others for behavior problems and some things definitely don’t work. So here is a list of the things that work best and what doesn’t work. If I miss any let me know, I am getting forgetful as I age.

This doesn't help. See tip #7

Addressing Behavior Problems with Time Outs Tip #1

1. Pick a place or places for time outs. Time outs can be done in a chair or a high chair for younger kids. Make sure the time out location is in a place where there isn’t a lot of stimulation, like a hallway. It shouldn’t be a dark or scary place. We want to stabilize our child’s behavior problems and help them learn to follow directions, not stick them in a closet and traumatize them for life. So choose a place that is fairly open. Make sure it is well lit and ideally where you can keep an eye on them if you need to.

Addressing Behavior Problems with Time Outs Tip #2

Decide which behavior problems you want to use the time out for. Parents need to be consistent for time out to work. If there is more than one parent in your family or other caregivers, get together and decide what behaviors you want to address. It is usually wise to choose the behaviors that occur most frequently, that are the most worrisome, or that push your buttons most as parents. Remember the time out is for you just as much as it is for the kids.

Addressing Behavior Problems with Time Outs Tips #3

Prepare your kids. Take some time to explain to the kids ahead of time what will be happening when they misbehave. Tell them the behaviors that are not OK and remember to tell them some of the other behaviors they can do instead that are OK. For instance, if you don’t want yelling and screaming let them know you want calm inside voices. Letting them know what will be a time out offense in advance changes time out from a punishment to a consequence.

Addressing Behavior Problems with Time Outs Tip #4

Let your children practice. Show your children where the time out will be and let them practice sitting still there for a few seconds or even a minute. This will prepare children better for when they are timed out as their young brains will now at least know what’s coming. You can even do a role play or walk through, where they show you a behavior problem and you show them how the time out will go.

Addressing Behavior Problems with Time Outs Tip #5

Simply state what the time out is for. When the child engages in the behavior you don’t want them doing you need to calmly identify the behavior. You are getting a time out for X. OK now this is a place where many parents go off the rails. They can’t seem to help themselves from engaging in a dialogue with the child about their behavior...maybe lecturing them or interrogating them about how they knew it was wrong. PLEASE AVOID the lecture or the debate. It just gets in the way and may send you back to the yelling angry place...brief chit chat...proceed calmly. Repeat after me ...explain...breath...silence...proceed.

Addressing Behavior Problems with Time Outs Tip #6

Walk your child calmly and firmly to the time out place. Use a hand to gently help them if they need some help getting there. Try to be calm and patient and use as little force as necessary but be firm. If you have to carry a little one have them facing away from your face. When the child is seated calmly you can set the timer. An egg timer or the timer on your stove will work fine. It is suggested that one minute of time out be used for every year of age up to age five. After age five, no more than five minutes.

I recommend one to two minute time outs. Anything longer really loses its effect. Also parents are more reluctant to use longer timeouts and they are more difficult to enforce. The time out is not punishment, it is an attempt to redirect our kids attention. Ten consecutive one minute time outs for the same thing is far more effective that one long time out. Studies on punishment have always shown that celerity (the speed of the response) and certainty are more important than severity. Parents often find punishment works well at first but over time they need to keep upping the ante. Kids get used to punishment. But quick and certain timeouts will work because they frustrate the child but not to the point where they begin to internalize that they must be bad, something more severe punishment does do.

Addressing Behavior Problems with Time Outs Tip #7

Ignore the child during the time out even if they act out. Ignore any negative comments or statements made by the child while in time out. This is another big mistake parents make. Little Johnny is bored or needs more attention so maybe he starts to swear or yell out. Or maybe little Janie says she hates you or simply pouts.All your response at this point will do is reinforce their attention seeking behaviors. As long as they stay in time out, you are doing your job. Just let them serve the time out quietly. Remember the time out is to help break the negative dynamic between you and your child. Giving more attention when they act out only adds fuel to the fire and reinforces the negative cycle. Any added attention during the time out completely undermines the intention of the time out.

Addressing Behavior Problems with Time Outs Tip #8

Don’t react if your child acts like time out is a game. Believe me, it is much better if the child pretends to first think it is a game than to freak out and explode. At least it shows they have self control. Your child may also say things like I like time out, it’s fun. Again, this is much better than a tantrum. In fact, this type of behavior problem let’s you know that much of your child’s noncompliance is in fact attention seeking and that they are in control of their behavior. The more you stay calm and follow through the better. Don't worry, the fun won't last and the time outs will get old in a hurry. The child will soon learn to curb the behavior problems that have resulted time outs.

Addressing Behavior Problems with Time Outs Tip #9

Ending the time out. When the time out is over, calmly place a hand on the child’s back or shoulder and let them know the time out is over. Asking them to find something else to do other than what they were previously doing is a good strategy. For example, if they threw a toy to get themselves in time out, you may have already put that toy away and they will need to find something else to do. There is one common mistake parents often make at this point. They want to lecture the child or rehash the whole episode. To your child this just feels like added punishment. Let it go and move on. They know what they did. Let the time out do the talking.

Addressing Behavior Problems with Time Outs Tip #10

Be consistent. If you are going to use time out you need to be consistent. Use it for minor issues and major transgressions. You need to be vigilant and enforce the time out every time it is warranted. Behavior studies in children (and also in adults) indicate that for a consequence to reduce behavior problems it needs to be quick and certain. Severity is not important. For the consequence to be certain we need to be vigilant and enforce the time out regularly and consistently. It is this structure that helps our children learn to respect limits and boundaries.

Time outs. Make them work

You can do other things that also help to make the time outs more effective. You can use it in public places by removing your child from a place where they are acting out to a more neutral place. You can also let your kids know when they are behaving well. Kids need a pat on the back for what they do right too, so let them know and encourage them to seek attention for playing peacefully, staying nearby in public places, and using inside voices (just a few examples). We want to encourage their positive behavior as much as possible.

Do not expect a miracle over night. However, parents should notice a big difference in their child’s behavior over time. Remember, the more parents are able to change their own behavior by not yelling, overreacting, scolding, or lecturing their children, the more effective the time out will be. As children get older, and their brains develop and allow them to reason better, parents can incorporate other parenting techniques. Hope this helps for now.


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