The whys and hows of executing an effective time-out.

By Kate Kelly
October 03, 2005
Toddler Tantrum on Hardwood Floor

If you're the parent of a toddler or preschooler, chances are that time-out is one of your frequent discipline strategies. And if you're like many parents, you may lament that it doesn't really work. Time-out is misunderstood and misused, but used correctly, it can be an effective tool to change behavior, according to Dana Chidekel, PhD, author of Parents in Charge (Simon & Schuster). Here's how to do it right.

Time-out is a term from sports and it's meant to be used in the same way, says Chidekel. The coach doesn't wait until the game is lost to call a time-out. He uses it as an opportunity for the team to regroup and get back into balance before everything falls apart. That's how parents should think of it--as a way for their child to regain equilibrium before he falls apart. The goal is to help children learn to regulate their own behavior.

The Right Way to Give a Time-Out

1. Give a warning. When you see that your child is on the verge of losing out, say something like, "I'm noticing that you're raising your voice, which often happens before you hit. If you don't stop, you're going to need a time-out." Chidekel notes that the explanation is important because it helps children become aware of their own triggers.

2. If the pre-meltdown behavior doesn't stop immediately, tell your child he needs to take a break to cool down. Some kids need to be by themselves to get back into balance; others find this upsetting. As for how long and where it takes place, Chidekel doesn't believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. While some experts say one minute for every year of age in a room where there's nothing interesting to do, she says the particulars depend on your child. It could be as simple as your child playing away from the action for two minutes in a different area of the room.

3. Let your child rejoin the action when he's ready. When he's calm again, your attitude should be, "Splendid, we're glad you've come back."

4. Praise your child for good behavior. It's important that he knows he'll get attention for behaving well. This means you have to be alert for any sign that he's moving in the right direction.

Biggest Time-Out Mistakes

1. Employing time-out too late. In order for it to be effective, you need to notice the signs that your child is about to hit someone, raise his voice, throw his crayons, or whatever.

2. Thinking of time-out as punishment. It shouldn't be used as a consequence for bad behavior. For one thing, if you've done it correctly, it should have prevented your child from acting out.

3. Not having a Plan B. If you find that time-out doesn't work to nip bad behavior in the bud, or your child is constantly on the verge of falling apart, you need to think about the big picture. Some children need to be in your arms' reach at all times, so you're right there to intervene and redirect.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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