Time-Out! How to get a grip on yourself AND your child’s behaviour

Emma Langham
Clinical Psychologist

‘Time out’ is a tried and tested strategy to teach children about misbehaviour; or rather, behaving well. However the interpretation on what time out actually is, and how to use it, varies considerably between parents.

Some parents describe sending their kids for 20 minute time outs in their bedroom often, for anything from yelling at their sibling in a heated debate, back chatting, kicking the dog or refusing to do a chore. Other parents use 1 minute time outs any time their child is noncompliant. And then there are parents who don’t implement time outs at all.

This parenting gig is never easy, and at every turn in the parenting journey there seem to be about 20 competing GPS nav-guides yelling out a different instruction. It gets mighty confusing and parents often introduce new strategies only to quickly abandon them and go back to what they were already doing for fear of ‘ruining’ their child, looking bad in front of others, being judged as a ‘harsh’ or even a ‘soft’ parent… or your partner disagreeing about how behaviour management ‘should be done’.
And sometimes changing things up just seems too hard.

In the ever-changing, sometimes tumultuous parenting world where behaviour management is part of the job description, the best question to ask yourself before turning the dial for time out or really before implementing any strategy aimed at managing your child’s behaviour is –

“what do I want my child to LEARN in this situation?”

Another way to think about that is “how should this (problem) behaviour change so that my child is meeting social expectations (to acceptable behaviour)?”. How can I help teach them?

After all, sometimes it isn’t so much that we view the behaviour as a proble (take the potty mouth family for instance J) but we know it won’t wash over ‘out there’ in the big world. Let’s face it, none of us like to be called by the centre Director or Kindergarten teacher to let us know our kid is the one dropping the ‘f-bomb’ during story time, even if you get a giggle out of it later.

The art of growing up is knowing how to behave, WHERE to behave.

Learning how to modify your behaviour to match the situation – the place, the people, and the purpose of being there, is a skill for life. Some kids learn this seemingly intuitively, just by being around great role models, but most kids need some help developing these skills as they branch out into new experiences.

So is time out an effective strategy?

Will time out really teach a child learn how to speak nicely to their sibling, listen to their parent without using ‘smart’ words in return, be gentle with the dog and do their homework?! Well in theory, it might; but unfortunately in practice, often not.

The main reasons that time out is not successful are due to:

  • Many parents who use time out tend to rely on it a bit too much, rather than having a range of tools under their belt depending on the severity of the problem, and having the same
    consequence for problems of varying severity can make kids feel that the consequence is unfair and resist the consequence, escalating rather than settling;
  • using time out inconsistently from day to day or parent to parent creates confusion and can create a child who is dismissive or over-anxious;
  • if time out is used as a punishment, not as a teaching tool, this usually leads to long periods in time out (anything more than a few minutes for kids under 5 years is too long) with time being added on and on for subsequent wrongdoings;
  • or the time out ‘zone’ may be more interesting than what the child is missing out on so they get distracted and forget the purpose of being there (ipad alert!);
  • or time out is confused with calm time for when kids need space to ‘re-set’ themselves if overwhelmed or tired, which is not a consequence for misbehaviour at all.

So…. what is time out for? What is it trying to achieve? When is it best used?? And HOW?!!

Time out is generally considered the strongest tool in the behaviour management tool box. Without it, or if it is failing, parents can feel helpless and when overwhelmed or desperate to have their child stop or start a behaviour when needed, can resort to yelling, making belittling comments, threats or smacking their child which causes relationship disruption or even damage.

So time out is for the BIG things. The intention is to communicate a big message fast. It’s best to think of time out as the top strategy above at least a few others – the top stair on a flight of stairs, with all of the other stairs needing to be climbed on first in order to get there. Having lower level strategies means you can keep time out for when it counts, and if you need a back up for a lower level strategy not succeeding, then kids will learn to predict that time out comes next and over time, work hard to avoid it and be compliant at lower steps on the staircase. Time out is just that – time away from where the child would rather be, due to an unacceptable behaviour – usually an aggressive behaviour that makes others hurt or uncomfortable.

The lower steps should include things such as:

  1. having ground rules in place around acceptable and unacceptable behaviour,
  2. reminders and discussion when entering a risky situation (ie play date, a long car trip) as well as setting positive reinforces for acceptable behaviour,
  3. logical consequences if a ground rule about acceptable behaviour is broken,
  4. quiet time as an intermediate step and then time out.

Time out involves removing the child from the situation to a pre-arranged place (such as a chair in the hallway outside the main living area, bottom step to the upstairs bedrooms, on the spare bed etc). The time out period should be held for a brief a period as possible, to allow your child to settle and ‘correct’ their behaviour. The key is to let your child know that time out ends when they’ve been calm for the set period, such as for 20 or 30 seconds. The total period of time out is essentially set by the child. If they escalate and can’t settle for 10 minutes but are then invited out after 20 seconds of quiet, they quickly learn to reduce the first 10 minutes (ie “you now need to go to the time out area and you can come out when you have been calm for 20 seconds”).

The faster you can support the child to re-join the activity and remind them of the expected behaviours, the faster they have a chance to try again, and gain positive reinforcement through praise if the get it ‘right’ (enough!). Or if re-joining the former activity is too risky or is no longer available, then redirecting your child to another activity where there is a likelihood of successful behaviour first is a great idea, as you have an opportunity for praising them and settling them further.

Young children will often need their calm caregiver to stay with them for time out rather than being left alone, a process often termed TIME IN. This is not providing the child with a ‘reward’, it is simply helping them to regulate their emotions and keep them safe.

What time out ISN’T, is a punishment. Sending a child to be alone behind a closed door with big emotions only teaches a child messages that will hinder healthy emotional development. It may teach kids that their parent can’t support them with big feelings (usually angry ones, tears usually encourage cuddles), that big feelings should be hidden or kept silent, even be ashamed of, and if the lesson regarding desirable behaviour isn’t clear then the child can feel THEY are bad, not the behaviour.

But time outs are not a life sentence. If you can focus on having simple, clear rules for acceptable behaviour, discuss consequences and positive outcomes for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour before you enter a situation and be consistent, consistent, consistent, your need for time out will diminish over time.

You can introduce time outs as early as around 2 to 3 years of age depending on the developmental maturity of the child, for very brief periods. Although quiet time is usually preferable for young children over time out, as this is more of a ‘nearby time out’, so does not evoke anxiety on separation or fears of being alone. I prefer to use a cushion or small matt for quiet time, as it can move with you anywhere around the house or even when out or visiting others. Removing your child to quiet time occurs when an unacceptable behaviour emerges and where reminders, a second chance, and a logical consequence (ie foregoing a turn on the swing, having the TV off for a minute) fail. Being directed to sit on the quiet cushion for 10 seconds next to the chair you are sitting on, on the kitchen floor beside the fridge if you are in the kitchen, or even on the grass under the clothes line as you peg out the washing can be enough of a break in a problem behaviour to have your child stop and think about what they really want to be doing (not sitting on a cushion!) so they can re-join their preferred activity.

It can be good fun to rehearse how quiet time works and even have them practice being the parent so you can show them what is expected of them when directed to sit on the quiet cushion. Same goes for time out. Always discuss and rehearse it first, don’t just start it without the child knowing what is going on or they may mistrust you.

Gone are the days of sitting on hard chairs with your nose to the wall until you can’t feel your nose… comfy cushions and safe zones with your loving guidance and direction will pave the way to having well-regulated children who respect the rules. Providing the rules are fair 🙂

For more information about discipline and time outs for children of all ages, see the RaisingChildren.net.au website or Triple P parenting website.

And remember, when using time outs, be mindful of what you are aiming to teach.

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