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How to Do an Effective Time-Out

3 Tips for parents whose kids just won't cooperate.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels
Source: Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

"I'm being haive!" —2-year-old when his mother told him to behave.

If you've ever battled with your kids to get them to behave, you know how good they can be at pushing the limits—and your buttons! Maybe your child is defiant ("No! I won't!"). Maybe your child makes smart-alecky comments ("But YOU didn't brush YOUR teeth, yet!"). Or maybe your child knows exactly how to make you feel guilty ("Why are you so meaaan? You don't love me!"). Whatever the scenario, your responsibility is to calmly set limits and teach your children that there are consequences for their behavior at home—and out in the world.

Enter time-out.

When used correctly, a time-out can be a powerful tool for teaching children to cooperate.

But many parents don't know how to "do" a time-out effectively.

If your child is between age 4 and 8—optimum ages for a time-out to be effective—the following tips can help.

1. Remember the purpose of a time-out. A time-out is to teach your child that "When you disobey the rules, there are unappealing consequences."

One of those consequences can be: temporarily having "fun stuff" (like friend time, family time, TV, books, games and/or coloring supplies) go on "pause."

Time-outs should not be used to make your child feel ashamed, ridiculed, or afraid. Time-outs should not be "scary." They're meant to be unappealing so that next time, a child will choose to behave appropriately, rather than get a time-out for misbehaving.

On that note. . .

2. Pick a boring area. Choose an area for time-out that's easy for you to monitor (like a chair in the kitchen) and away from "interesting things" (like toys, people, TV or windows).

Don't let your child take anything to the time-out area (like a book or a pet). The idea is to remove all sources of "fun" and "entertainment."

It's best not to use your child's bedroom or study space for a time-out.

Time-out needs to feel "different" than the rest of your child's day.

3. Start with about two minutes. Assuming your child is at least 4, consider starting with about a two-minute time-out.

If your child misbehaves during those two minutes—whining, squirming, fussing or leaving the timeout area—then you can re-set the timer, starting the time-out all over again.

Like many children who have been getting away with misbehaving for some time, when one of my clients recently introduced time-out, her daughter rebelled.

This mom had to be very patient, and keep re-setting the timer until her daughter got the message: "If you misbehave during the time-out, the time-out gets longer. If you sit quietly, the time-out will be over faster."

During that two-minute period, don't lecture or scold your child. Your responsibility is simply to monitor them, and re-set the timer as needed. Their responsibility is simply to sit quietly.

The time-out is over when you say, "Time-out is over."

Last but not least: It is possible to prevent time-outs by setting reasonable rules, and, when you do, clearly explaining to your child the reason for the rule, so it makes sense to your child to comply. That said, before you give your child a time-out, outline how it works. Have an age-appropriate conversation with your child and describe:

  • Which misbehaviors will lead to a time-out.
  • Where the time-out will happen.
  • How long it will last.
  • The timer you will use.
  • If there's any misbehavior, your child will get ONE warning. ("This behavior must stop, or you'll get a time-out.")

Explain that if there's any misbehavior during time-out, this means that the time-out starts over (and gets longer).

Remind them that the time-out starts when they become quiet and ends when they hear you say, "Time-out is over."

Have your child repeat the process back to you so you know they understand.

Remember: As a parent, your responsibility is to give your child unconditional love and support—but also to demonstrate that "when you misbehave, there are consequences for your actions." This is so key that I wrote a book that incorporates this concept: How to Get Your Kids to Cooperate: And Help Them become the Best Grown-Ups They Can Be.

Be calm. Be firm. Be consistent. In doing so, you'll give your child a gift that can serve them their whole life long: The gift of knowing "right" from "wrong."

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional or psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Contact a qualified provider before implementing or modifying any personal growth or wellness program or technique, and with questions about your well-being.

Copyright ©2019 Dr. Suzanne Gelb, PhD, JD. All rights reserved.

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