The Truth About Time-Out

The Limits on Setting Limits

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?

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