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Effectively Using Time-Outs for Children

Effectively using a time-out – removing a child from the good things in life – is one of the best tools you can use when your children misbehave. It’s the opposite of time-in, which is when children are engaged in pleasurable activities like reading with you, coloring, or playing with toys. Time-out works because time-in with you is so important to them.

Time-out is generally brief and varies with your child’s age – shorter periods for younger children, longer periods for older kids. It should follow the misbehavior immediately and be conducted in a calm manner. Since there’s no reason to raise one’s voice or hand when administering a time-out, parents feel better about this form of discipline.

The Steps to Time-Out

  1. Tell the child he is going to time-out and briefly explain why.
  2. Indicate where the child should go for time-out or gently take him.
  3. Allow the child to calm down before the time-out period starts.
  4. Set a timer to begin the time-out.
  5. Tell the child he may leave once the timer signals the end of the time-out.

Pre-teaching is important. When your child is not misbehaving, explain what time-out is, what behaviors will result in a time-out and how long it will last. Practice by pretending. Make it fun. Have your child play the part of the parent and let one of her stuffed animals be the child. 

When Time-Out Isn’t Working

Your child misbehaves during time-out: Say nothing; ignore everything the child says or does that isn’t dangerous to the child, yourself and others.

Your child tries to leave time-out before time is up: Say absolutely nothing, gently return your child to time-out and restart the timer once he is calm. If a pressing matter interrupts time-out, explain to your child why time-out is being stopped and that it will continue later. If your child consistently leaves time-out, consider a shorter period.

You may need to use three other principles, as well:

  • Redo -- child is asked to repeat the proper way to perform an action
  • Redirect – child is gently engaged in learning a different point of interest 
  • Undo – child is encouraged to “fix” bad behavior, like cleaning a mess she’s created

Your child repeatedly leaves time-out because his is too upset: Allow your child to calm down before resetting the timer. Stay calm, even in the face of worsening behavior. Make sure your child isn’t in danger. Maintain a safe distance. When your child loses control, your first priority is to help him regain his composure. When your child stops arguing and can say he is calm, return him to time-out and reset the timer. Do not let your child learn that throwing a tantrum will get him out of time-out.  

Using Time-Out Away from Home
When your child misbehaves in public, remain calm and quickly move to an isolated spot, like a restroom or hallway. These are areas where you can have a time-out without interruption. You can even use a portable time-out pad.  It’s about the size of a dinner plate and made of paper or vinyl. The disk has two sides: one with a sad “time-out” face; the other with a happy, “time-in” face. When your child needs a time-out, she sits on the sad face. When time-out is over, she can return the pad, smiley face up. Teach your child about the time-out pad before you need to use it.

Some children need a visual, time-out pad; others can just sit on a bench. Either way, the message is the same: Misbehavior results in a time-out, even away from home.

Time-out is successful when parents fully explain it to their children, practice the process before it’s needed, remain calm while enforcing it and are consistent in its use.

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