Time outs stop behavior in the moment. That is all they do for challenging children.
Here are some things time outs do NOT definitely do for challenging kids.
- They do not teach your child how to behave
- They do not prevent your child from repeating the action
- They are not educational
- They are not the magic bullet
The time outs are like pressing the reset button on the computer. They give you a chance to breathe and think, your child is removed from the situation and you can try again. What you do after the time out can teach your child right from wrong, decrease the chances of your child repeating the action and be both positive and loving. The power in a time out comes from two things.
- No warning. Inappropriate behavior = time out
- How you talk with the child after the time out is completed
- After a time out, ask these three questions
- What did you do wrong?
- Why was that wrong?
- What will you differently next time?
If a child is doing something wrong, give a time out right away. If you count, you are teaching the child that it is ok to do something one or two times. If you ask a child to come and put on their shoes, they should come right away or before you count to 5 (or 10 - you choose). That time out doesn't have to last for a long time. Honestly 30 seconds might be fine.
Here is an example of what NOT to do.
Mom: "Please come and put on your shoes."
Kid: doesn't do anything
Mom: "I told you to put on your shoes. Come on. We are going to school. You're going to have a good day."
Mom: "That's 1. You need to put them on right now."
Kid: moving very slowly
Mom: "That's 2. You need to hurry up. We are going to be late."
Kid: slowly finding the shoe
You get the idea. The longer this conversation goes on, the more frustrated you as the parent are going to be. The more control your child is wielding over the situation. At the same time, even if the mom were to give a time out at 3, everyone got frustrated and doddling was tolerated for quite some time.
Try this for a change:
Mom: "You need to have your shoes on in 10 seconds. (counting slowly) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
Kid: (Not doing anything or moving slowly)
Mom: "Take a time out. Come back when you are ready to tell me what you did wrong."
Kid: (Sits down and takes a time out. Kid comes back.) I'm ready to talk.
Mom: What did you do wrong?
Kid: I didn't put my shoes on in time.
Mom: Why was that wrong?
Kid: I wasn't following rule #1.
Mom: What are you going to do differently next time?
Kid: I'll put my shoes on quickly.
Mom: That sounds like a great plan! Let's see how quickly you can get them on!
You might be thinking - that sounds great, but my child isn't going to take a time out or have a conversation like that the first time either! You are right. The first time your child isn't going to have a conversation like that. On top of that, they probably will fight the time out.
I'll deal with those issues in the FAQ section below.
What if my child will not take a time out?
Parent: Take a time out.
Child: (Doesn't do anything)
Parent: (Pick up the child and move them to the time out spot. If you need to, hold the door closed to their room for a minute.)
Child: I'm ready to talk.
Parent: I'm going to say "What did you do wrong?" and you are going to say, "I didn't go to my time out." What did you do wrong?
Child: (Doesn't respond.)
Parent: You are not finished with your time out. We can talk with you are ready. (Put the child back in time out. The first few times, this could last a very long time!)
Child: Can we talk now?
Parent: Sure. What did you do wrong?
Child: I didn't go to my time out.
Parent: Why was that wrong?
Child: I don't know.
Parent: You were breaking rule #1 - Follow directions fast. What rule were your breaking?
Child: I broke rule #1.
Parent: What will you do differently next time?
Child: I'll walk to my time out.
Parent: Great, let's practice. Let's pretend I just said time out. (Go through the process. If your kids are 7 or younger, you can even have a favorite stuffed animal act this out a few times and have the kid practice being the parent.)
What if my child comes back and is still whining?
If your child is still whining, they are not finished with their time out. I know this can be hard to enforce, but you do not want to tolerate whining. If they come out too soon, you might need to put on the timer and say you can try again in 5 minutes. The first time the time out might last a very long time. At the end, when you talk with your child, address why it is wrong to whine.
What if my child destroys his or her room during the time out?
Some kids will do this. If you know your child is a room wrecker, make sure they don't have anything valuable in their room. You want to talk about why wrecking their room is wrong after everyone has cooled down. You can either have the child clean up the room, or you can clean it up, but take away anything that you clean up. (You can just put them in garbage bags and give one thing back at a time a few days or weeks later as your child starts to behave.)
What if the time out seems to make my child escalate and s/he doesn't seem to calm down forever?It is normal for a child to escalate at the beginning of a time out. Sometimes the first few times a child takes a time out they will escalate for 10, 20 or 30 minutes. This is normal. On the other hand, if this happens repeatedly and does not get better, you need to think about some other techniques.
This needs to be a judgement call on your part. For about 10% of children, especially those with special needs, time outs may just escalate the behavior. Sometimes you have to calm down the child before giving them a break or just skip the break all together. There is a chance that time outs really do not work for your child.
If you have tried and your child just seems to get more and more wound up and more and more anxious during a time out, you may need to use a different technique. There are times when what a young child needs is to be rocked in a chair and calmed down. There are times when your child might just need a hug and some cuddles. You know what works best for your child, and you should feel to experiment if you try time outs and find that they really just escalate your child.