As an in-home therapist for young kids and their parents, one of the most common skills I taught to parents was how to run an effective time-out. Often times I did this because parents were attempting to begin a discipline regimine, as they hadn’t had one to begin with or the one they had chosen wasn’t working to eliminate the problem.
Time-outs can be a valuable discipline technique instead of physical punishment or some other discipline form that hasn’t helped to decrease the problem behavior. However, time-outs are only effective if done correctly. Doing them incorrectly can actually cause more harm than good. An incorrectly facilitated time-out can encourage more of the problem behavior that parents are trying to stop.
But remember, not all parenting professionals recommend using time-outs as a discipline technique, so parents should decide which discipline technique is best for them before starting any discipline regimine.
If you’ve decided that aren’t into using time-outs, consider using this technique instead of time-outs with your child’s probematic behaviors.
In my work, I have seen time-outs that go well and time outs that go terribly wrong. From my viewpoint, there were three major mistakes that occurred during the time-out process, leading to a time-out experience that did not teach the child the lesson that it was intended to teach.
Time-Out Mistake #1: Empty Threats
Parents often times want to threaten a time-out because they hope that the child will be scared enough to stop the behavior. However, if the parent threatens a time-out, the parent has to be willing to follow through with the time-out in its entirety. If not, the child learns that the parent is not someone to be trusted, in discipline or in life, and that the child should not expect the parent to follow through on other things.
This means that parents should only threaten a time-out when they have the means to complete the task. If you’re at the grocery store and aren’t willing to conduct a time-out in public, then don’t threaten it!
Time-Out Mistake #2: Talking Too Much
When conducting a time-out, the only time you need to talk to your child is when you are placing the child in time-out and when you are releasing him from time-out. For a detailed description of how to effectively run a time-out with your child, read Step #5 here.
Parents often want to negotiate with their child and offer a shorter time if the child stops crying, or they want to educate the child that if he would just stop crying, the time-out would be over by now. Unfortunately, this is disrupting the whole point of the time-out. The time-out is supposed to be a time-out, or away, from the problem situation. It is a time for children to clear their minds and to learn how to calm themselves, with you there to keep them safe. When they are talking to you, they are not accomplishing this.
Time-Out Mistake #3: Ending Too Soon
To follow through with the time-out in its entirety, the parent must tell the child what she did wrong, place the child in time out for the appropriate amount of time (one minute for each year of age, or whatever the adult has established ahead of time) and require that the child sit quietly in the time-out spot for that amount of time.
Parents are busy people, and it is guaranteed that there is always something else that the parent wants to get done at that time. However, at this moment, the most important task for the parent must be to teach the child that there are consequences to her actions. Children are excellent negotiators, which is a developmentally appropriate skill for children to have. However, allowing the child to negotiate out of the time-out by stating “I’m sorry” or “I won’t do it again” does not teach the child any important lessons. The meaning of “I’m sorry” is “I feel bad about doing it and I do not plan to do it again.” However, to a child it means,” I have to say this so that I don’t have to stay in the time-out.”
The initial action that placed the child in time-out is what the child needs to receive a consequence for, and saying I’m sorry, while polite, is not a consequence to a child’s actions at all. In addition, actually feeling sorry for doing something that hurt someone, physically or emotionally, requires empathy, a skill that most children do not have until age 5 or more. Therefore, by allowing the child to say “I’m sorry” to get out of the time-out, the parent has accepted words that mean nothing to the child except an avoidance of any consequence for her behavior.
If you choose to use time-outs as a discipline plan, you can make them work to teach your child some valuable skills and life lessons. However, if done wrong, time-outs can sometimes worsen those behaviors you are trying to get rid of–and even worse–make your life much more difficult! Remember to be consistent when using time outs, and to avoid using time-outs with the populations listed in Step 5 here.