The Truth About Time-Out

A child in the throes of the terrible twos unquestionably needs limits. Is time-out the best way to set them?

The Value of Time-Outs

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.

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