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How to Make Time-out an Effective Discipline Strategy

January 13, 2016

How to make time-out an effective discipline strategy

As a pediatric resident, I spend a lot of time discussing discipline with the parents of toddlers.  I have found that many parents struggle to find an effective method of disciplining their children; they often try various forms of discipline, but are unable to find a method that really works. I begin discussing discipline at a child’s 12-month checkup so that parents have the tools necessary to establish a discipline technique early and use it effectively as their child grows. 

At these early visits, I recommend the time-out method of discipline, and I’d like to give you a good strategy for making time-out work for your family, too.

Why you should choose time-out

I believe it is important to remember why we discipline children.  At the end of the day, the goal of discipline is to teach or to guide children to help them understand what is and is not acceptable behavior. Discipline does not mean punishment or control.

Although time-out may seem like punishment at the time, it is not associated with the negative emotions that spanking or yelling can create. Speaking from personal experience, I know that spanking can cause a child to fear the parent that delivers this type of discipline.  Studies have also shown that using physical forms of discipline are associated with future mood, anxiety, and personality disorders and substance abuse in these children (read more about this, here). 

Thus, time-out is a positive method of discipline that does not weaken the bond between parent and child due to fear or anxiety of punishment. 

Setting the stage for effective time-outs

Many parents have tried time-out before, but with unsuccessful results.  It is important to remember that the benefits of time-out happen over a length of time, not necessarily instantly like spanking. Time-out takes commitment from all of the child’s caregivers. It is essential that you follow through with your word each and every time. If not, you (or the other caregivers) will lose all credibility with your child and any form of discipline will become ineffective.

Here is an example:

If your child hits, you give one warning, “We do not hit. If you hit again, you are going to time-out.”

If your child hits again, you immediately say, “We do not hit. You are going to time-out for hitting” and proceed to place the child in time-out. 

You must always follow through- if you warn they are facing time-out, you must place them in time out if they repeat the behavior. 

Remember, commitment and consistency from you is the key to making time-out work for your family.

Toddlers are also looking for attention from you. At this age (1 to 3 years old), they do not care whether it is good or bad attention, they just want that big reaction from you, so it is also important for you not to react. Give your one warning, and if your child continues the behavior (like hitting), place them in time-out without getting upset and giving them the attention they are seeking.

Choose a suitable location for time-out

Time-out needs to be in a safe space that is incredibly boring for your child.  For small children (1 to 3 years old), a place such as a crib, high chair, or pack-n-play works well as they are not really cable of sitting still on a chair on their own. 

You want this area to be boring, so no toys, pillows or blankets for them to play with. You also want it to be away from distractions, like other children, adults or television. You need to be out of their line of site so they do not realize they have your attention. Generally, standing right outside the door works since you can make sure your child is safe, but they cannot see you. 

If you are out at a restaurant or shopping, take your children to the bathroom and hold them without speaking. As your child gets older, you may designate sitting on the bed or a specific chair as time-out.

Setting the “time” in time-out

A child should be in time-out one minute for every year of life. If your child is two years old, they should be in time-out for two minutes.  Many parents find it beneficial to use a kitchen timer. Your child will quickly learn that when the timer goes off, they get out of time-out. This can help them learn self-control and self-soothing behavior. 

When first using time out, your child may cry for the duration of the time-out period. That’s okay. Over time they will learn to sit quietly and wait until time is up. Just remember that this is not going to happen overnight.  If, after time is up and your child immediately hits you again, you should put them directly back in time-out, again saying,  “We do not hit. You are going to time-out for hitting.” If the undesirable behavior occurs several hours later, you can again warn them of the consequences (time-out) for that behavior.

While your child is in time-out, this gives you a chance to calm down as well. It can be difficult not to give in and yell when your child is sticking their fingers into electrical outlets, but it is important to try to control that gut reaction. Remember, small children love your attention. Try to always be mindful of this and use time out to collect yourself as well.     

Putting it all together

Here’s a quick reminder of what we’ve discussed:

  • Be committed to using time out each and every time. 
  • Follow through with your warning and consistently use time-out. 
  • Do not react and give them the attention they are seeking with bad behavior. 
  • Time-out needs to be extremely boring. 
  • One minute of time-out for every year of life.

I hope you find this post helpful and good luck with future time outs!