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The Truth About Time-Out

Biting. Hitting. Pinching. Out-of-control meltdowns. Ask any parent of a 2-year-old about the most dreaded -- yet predictable -- behaviors of the terrible twos and you'll hear that litany. Within weeks of her second birthday, my own sweet-tempered child grabbed her friend by the hair, angrily slapped her father, and practiced her kicking technique on my shins.

"Two-year-olds have very powerful feelings that they are just starting to learn how to regulate," says Marilou Hyson, Ph.D., associate executive director for professional development of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), in Washington, D.C. "Parents need to help by setting limits and teaching through discipline, not harsh punishment." That's why this is the age when most parents introduce the ever-popular time-out.

Although the term has varying definitions (which many parents customize by creating a specific place or ritual for it), the general idea is to remove a child from his immediate surroundings in order to stop a negative behavior. For example, if your child clearly knows that she's doing something wrong -- throwing sand at a playmate, say -- yet persists in doing it, a brief interval away from the sandbox lets her know that such behavior won't be tolerated.

A time-out may also help a child calm down. If your son is running wild-throwing blocks or shoving his little brother -- it's necessary to intervene so he doesn't hurt anyone (including himself) and can begin to regain control of his emotions.

As useful as it can be, however, time-outs don't work in every situation. Here, some guidelines for deciding when it's time for a time-out.

Lisa Campe could always tell when her daughter, Tess, was heading toward a rough spell. "There was no point in trying to talk rationally with her when she was upset," says the Roslindale, Massachusetts, mother. Campe's solution was to have Tess sit in her playroom for a brief cooling-off period.

In Campe's case, a time-out did the trick. But how can you determine whether it's the right response for your child? Parents should keep two factors in mind, Dr. Hyson advises.

First, realize that children this age are simply too young to make the connection between their own misbehavior and punitive discipline. That's why any time-out, should you use it, must be brief. "Two-year-olds do not have long memories," she says. "After just five minutes, they have completely forgotten the incident that prompted the time-out in the first place."

The rule of thumb for a time-out is to give one minute for each year of age. Though two minutes may not seem like enough time for a child to absorb a lesson, it is long enough for a toddler. Besides, at this age, the point is less to instruct (2-year-olds are much too young to ponder the error of their ways) than to separate the child from the scene of the trouble.

Another point to remember is that using time-out as a punishment can be frightening for toddlers, especially if you've lost your temper. In addition to keeping your cool, make sure that you do not place the child in a physical setting where she will feel isolated or abandoned, even for just a couple of minutes.

Most important, a time-out should not be used as a way to punish a child in the throes of an out-of-control tantrum. "You're trying to get a child to comply with something while he's hysterical, and that just doesn't work," says Victoria Lavigne, Ph.D., an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Medical School, in Chicago. Instead, take him to a neutral place, but stay close by while he screams.

Even if a time-out is appropriate, you need to determine (as with any other discipline method) the cause of the negative behavior, not just a means of stopping it. Is your child having a rough time at day care? Is she coming down with a cold? Is she hungry? Is she picking up on tension between you and your partner or feeling the end-of-the-day, predinner rush?

At some point, your attempts to set limits will almost certainly be met with tears. Even after you've patiently explained to your toddler why pulling on the lamp cord is a bad idea, he won't grasp the concept right away. (As with almost everything else a 2-year-old does, repetition and practice are key.) If you decide to impose a time-out, accept that crying or even a tantrum might ensue and be prepared to ride it out.

Once the time-out is over, don't mention the incident again. Instead, direct your toddler toward positive behavior -- and give him lots of praise and encouragement for acting correctly.

Remember that there is no quick fix or easy solution to this very trying phase. "There's an almost naive assumption among a lot of parents that if you discipline children, they won't engage in that behavior again," Dr. Lavigne says. "That rarely holds true at any age, but especially not for a 2-year-old."

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the October 2000 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.