Sunday, May 22, 2011

Weekly Column: On Using Timeouts

In the beginning, there were no time-outs.  Time-outs were for misbehavior, and we certainly didn’t have any of that happening in our household. 
Until suddenly, we did. 
When those undesirable actions – hitting, throwing – seemed likely to stick around for awhile in our rambunctious toddler, we had to come up with a plan.  And when mere redirection didn’t work, we hung all our rosy hopes upon the venerable time-out.   
We put a bright blue, round placemat in the corner and plopped our little miscreant on top of it for the requisite few minutes of time her repentance would take.  A big, blue dot worthy of being avoided, we thought.  But that placemat was too much fun to hold apologetic feelings.  Floppy and plastic, the placemat was molded by our daughter into a telescope.  It was flipped across the room as a Frisbee.  It was spun around upon as a Sit-n-spin.  And eventually, it was abandoned. 
As the months and years stacked up, we’ve learned some truths about time-outs, and how to use them effectively.  Mostly, we’ve learned not to overdo it; many situations can be addressed with natural consequences or loss of privileges, which will make stronger impressions on little minds in the long run.  But when necessary, or when you just can’t think fast enough to come up with other alternatives, here are some tips for making time-outs work for little ones. 
·         Place the child away from stimulating action, but close enough to be easily monitored.  A boring, central location works well; our favorite spot is the middle of the hallway.
·         Don’t assume they’ll sit still at first.  Stay close and aware of their actions, replacing them as often as it takes for them to remain seated.
·         Don’t heap additional punishment (yelling, spanking, etc.)on top of the time-out.  Let it stand alone or it won’t be effective as a tool over the long run.
·         An immediate, calm follow-up is a must.  Explain why their actions were wrong, answer any questions, hear their apology, and reassure them that you trust them to make a better decision next time.
·         Institute partnered ‘breaks’ in special situations.  Kids often just need some time to calm down or regroup, but not while surrounded by a sense of punishment.  Remove them from the action to someplace cozy, and take a few minutes to chat.  Help them work through big feelings.  Anger and frustration and sadness are hard to process in ways that feel acceptable to adults and children alike.  They need our guidance to work through it all, and a calm, assisted ‘break’ can help do that.  Don’t even call it a time-out if that will be associated with punishment.
The point of a time-out isn’t to force our children into a miserable apology, it’s just to give them a chance to understand and choose better actions next time.  Use time-outs wisely, and your kids will eventually learn the cause and effect relationship of negative behavior.
And never underestimate the benefit of taking a time-out as a parent; sometimes, we are the ones who need that moment to regroup!


  1. So true. We don't use time outs very often but they seem to be more effective that way. And, I often find myself needing one too!

  2. Hoping and praying you and your family are all safe!


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