What to do when "Time Out" doesn't work?

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Everyone I know tells me that they use “Time Outs” to get their kids to behave better. But it doesn’t work for us.  In fact, my three year old thinks that “Time Out” is a game, not a punishment.  He just runs away when I try to get him to sit down, and if I put him in his room he comes right out.  I’ve tried holding the door closed and he gets hysterical and then starts throwing things around the room.  This can’t be the right approach to discipline for my child, but what is?

As you've found out, there's a lot more to helping a child behave than just using a Time Out to punish him.

The idea of giving children “Time Outs” for misbehavior probably started when pediatricians were trying to convince parents to stop spanking their children.  When parents said, “But if I don’t spank, then what can I do?”  “Give your child a “Time Out” was the standard suggestion, but there has never been a standard definition for what that means.

In fact, if you read books and listen to experts and talk to your friends, you will discover pretty fast that no one agrees about what a Time Out really is or when it’s a good idea to use one!  So what I say here may be different from what you’ve heard elsewhere.

I thnk of a Time Out as a quick and simple way for a parent to interrupt a child's misbehavior.  Time Outs work best when they are used to stop your child from continuing to do something he already knows he is not supposed to do. Ideally, the Time Out is a brief, calm and boring response that discourages future misbehavior. If a child can’t control himself, the parent quickly removes him from the situation and gives him as little attention as possible during a brief Time Out.  The Time Out might be nothing more than the parent leaving the room with the child and sitting with him on the stairs or in his room for a few (boring) minutes. The idea is for a child to learn, over time, that cooperative behavior is more interesting than unpleasant behavior!

Here’s an example of why many Time Outs don’t work.  A typical “naughty child” behavior begins when a child does something he knows he shouldn’t and looks to the parent as if to say, “Are you noticing this?”  If the parent responds only with a mild reproach or an irritated look, most children will escalate in their misbehavior.  Why?   Children like supervision and they like to know that parents are predictable.  If they can’t figure out why you don’t seem willing to stop them from acting up, they will often keep testing. Then, once they have repeated their misbehavior several times, gotten a few warnings and threats, they usually escalate to something so naughty that you lose your temper, yell, and perhaps then try to impose a Time Out.  By then you are both emotionally worked up, and your child has been repeating and practicing the misbehavior you are trying to discourage!

Ideally, the scenario would be this: When a child breaks a known or obvious rule the parent reminds him:  "No throwing toys" or “No shouting at your mom” and takes the child to the Time Out spot.  The child must stay in the spot for a very short time--one minute per year of age is plenty for most children.  The parent should stay with the child to keep him there, and may need to hold him--gently, but firmly, the way you hold a child when he’s having his ears checked..  At the end of the Time Out say, "O.K., let's try again" and go back to your activities. You may want to remind him of the good behavior you expect: "Remember, be gentle." or redirect him to a new activity. If your he breaks the rule again, repeat the Time Out.  If you can stay calm and you are consistent your child will eventually learn that when he breaks that rule, the fun stops and he is stuck with a boring, predictable result.

If the child breaks the rule again later in the day, or the next day the parent should repeat the Time Out, repeating the rule and having the child repeat the rule back.  It is very important that all of this be done calmly--if a parent gets angry some children will push back much harder. Predictability is the key to eventual success.

This approach to Time Out may not be as effective if your child is misbehaving because he’s overtired, overstimulated or hungry.  In those situations, the Time Out must be accompanied by correcting the underlying problem. 

In some situations, such as a huge tantrum, you may have to take your child to a separate room and close the door very briefly. However, if your child is reacting to this separation with hysterical crying, he isn't going to learn much from the experience.  Children who are upset often can’t remember the reason their parent became angry, only that something awful and scary has happened.  At the same time, a child who is out of control, hitting or thrashing will be equally frightened if he hurts his parents or causes them to blow up.  So sometimes a Time Out alone is good protection for everyone.

If your child is getting a few brief Time Outs every day for naughty behavior and his behavior is improving, great.  If, on the other hand, you feel like your child is spending much of each day in Time Out, it’s important to rethink how you are making and enforcing rules.  It is possible that your expectations for his age are too much or that your child is acting out because of feelings that aren’t being addressed?  That's why you should think of Time Outs as a tool in your kit, not the only solution to misbehavior.

There are many other ways of helping your child to behave--if you make clear rules, have reasonable expectations, and praise good behavior you can often prevent the misbehavior rather than simply responding to it.  The root of the word “discipline” is teaching, not punishing, and that’s a good way to think about helping your child to behave better!