July 02, 2015

Q: What should I do when my almost 3-year-old refuses to do a time out? I've tried calmly explaining to her that we will do nothing else until she completes her 2 minutes, but she just screams and cries hysterically, while trying to get away from her time out spot. I repeatedly put her back in time out when she does this, but she gets so worked up, that I don't know what else to do. Nothing seems to work. How do I get her to do a time out without a struggle?

A: Time-out is such an effective form of behavior management partly because it simply is no fun for a child to be in it, so it is quite understandable that a young child will be not be a happy camper when put there. And we have to remember that while most adults have developed coping skills that allow them to handle disappointment without yelling and screaming (the exceptions, of course, being certain professional athletes or coaches), young children generally have not.

It is important that children know in advance what behaviors will get them a time-out – so it will not be a surprise when they are told to go, and as such some tantrums may be avoided- as well as what the rules are about staying in time-out.  If a child resists going to time-out, parents can use gentle physical guidance to get the child to the time-out chair.  When a child yells and screams during a time-out, a parent should ignore the tantrum, so the child will not be getting any attention for the behavior.  If the child gets out of the chair, he should be escorted back to the chair and the timer should be restarted.  If a young child continues to get out of the chair, a parent can gently hold the child’s shoulders to keep him in the chair, while also turning her head so that she is not looking at the child and giving him her attention.  Children should also be told in advance that if things get to this step there will be an additional consequence, such as not being able to play with a favorite toy for the rest of the afternoon. Additionally, it is important that when a parent puts a child in time-out that she not give in to tantrums, but rather continues to enforce the punishment.  While initially this may unfortunately result in a child’s having even bigger tantrums as he tries harder and harder to get you to give in – it is what we psychologists call an “extinction burst”, because we like to come up with really neat names for things –eventually, if a parent sticks with all of this, the child will soon learn that tantrums don’t work, nor does getting out of the chair. Parents should also set the rule that in order to leave the chair the child needs to be calm and quiet.  And remember, after a time-out the child needs to “fix” whatever got him there in the first place, so, for example, he would have to follow the command that he initially defied or apologize for any misbehavior that led to the time-out.

Of course, the best way to decrease tantrums is to try to decrease the need for time-out in the first place, so parents want to try and catch a child acting good as often as possible and praise and reinforce those behaviors, so as to increase the frequency of these behaviors (and thus decrease the likelihood of undesired ones).

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Answered by Dr. Wayne Fleisig