Step Four: Use “Time Out” to help your child regain control.
Rosa and Javier make it very clear early on in their parenting work with me that they want no part of using the time-out system with their children. “We’ve tried those before. They do not work for our children.” With further exploration, Javier and Rosa reveal how the time-out process typically unfolds for them. First, one of their two boys (Justin or Nico) misbehaves. Then, Rosa tells him to stop. When he doesn’t stop, she raises her voice and again tells him to stop. On Rosa’s third attempt to stop the behavior, Javier typically gets involved. He warns his son, “Justin, do you want to go into time-out? If you keep this up, you are going into time-out!” When the behavior continues, both parents are exasperated and begin to count (“one, two, three”) interrupting themselves periodically to threaten their son with an impending time-out. Finally, one of the parents, frustrated with Justin’s lack of behavior change, says, “That’s it. You are going into time-out.”, taking Justin by the hand and escorting him to his room. In response to being closed in his room, the he screams, cries, bangs on the door and ultimately escapes from his room to return to the living room with his brother. Javier and Rosa take turns bringing Justin back to his room but finally give up when they need to get on with their day. The bad behavior continues, and they try to just ignore it.
Time-out may be the most overused parenting strategy out there. It’s also commonly misused. Parents often automatically resort to using time-out when they really don’t know what else to do. This confuses kids who then view a time-out as a punishment for misbehavior, rather than a valuable tool for them to regain composure.
It’s critical to set the stage for a proper time-out, by discussing (even role-playing) in advance with your child how the time-out works and where your child will go when he is in time-out. Typically, a time-out takes place in a safe, boring, non-scary place like a hallway or the base of the stairs. It is important that you stay very calm when you deliver a time-out, making certain that you explain to your child why the time-out is necessary by connecting it to the problem behavior.
Rosa and Javier have tried the time-out method again; this time with my guidance. Initially, they were frustrated because the boys’ behavior actually seemed to get worse when Rosa and Javier followed the time-out guidelines more closely. I reassured them that this is not an unusual response to time-out. Children need to test whether or not you really mean it the first couple of times before they begin to respond with behavioral change. By the third time Javier and Rosa consistently used time-out, each boy no longer earned a count of “three” before changing his behavior. The time-out became less and less necessary as the boys developed self-control.
Steps to Time-Out
Step One: Calmly give your child a warning that her behavior is inappropriate. Suggest an alternative behavior.
Rosa: “When you are upset with your brother, you can’t scream at him. Instead, you can tell him what’s upsetting you using your calm, indoor voice.”
Step Two: Tell your child that if bad behavior continues, a time-out will be necessary.
Javier: “Justin, if you continue to yell at your brother, you are going to earn a time-out in order to settle yourself down.”
Step Three: If the bad behavior continues, calmly hold up one finger and say that this behavior earns a “one”
Rosa: “You are still screaming. That behavior earns a one”.
Step Four: Remain quiet. Wait 30 seconds for behavior to change.
Step Five: If behavior continues, calmly hold up two fingers and say that this behavior earns a “two”.
Javier: “You are still screaming. That behavior earns a two.”
Step Six: Remain quiet. Wait 30 seconds for behavior to change.
Step Seven: If behavior continues, calmly hold up three fingers and say that this behavior earns a “three” and a “time-out”.
Rosa: “You are still screaming. That behavior earns a three and a time-out”.
Step Eight: Escort your child to the time-out spot.
Step Nine: If your child cries, talks, yells, protests, ignore these behaviors. As badly as you may want to argue, cajole, or lecture your child during these moments, refrain!
Javier stands quietly next to Justin until he calms down. Javier does not speak to him or look at him. He remains neutral.
Step Ten: Time out lasts until your child is quiet in time out for at least 30 seconds.
Step Eleven: Refrain from discussion, lecturing, or yelling after the time-out is over. Redirect your child to positive behaviors.
Rosa: “Your time-out is finished. You may go back and play quietly with your brother.”
Frequently Asked Questions about Time-Out
What if my child won’t go or stay in time-out?
If your child does not go or stay into time-out, he does not earn any privileges until the time-out has been served. This means your child can’t play with toys, watch TV, go on the computer, play video games, have snacks or any other privilege you can control.
What if my child hits his sibling? Should I still count to three?
Some behaviors like hitting, spitting, biting or kicking earn an automatic time out. No second chances.
What if we don’t have time for a time-out? Can I threaten to use one later?
Time-outs are not effective when they are threatened in the abstract. Later is too late. This defeats the goal of the time-out: for your child to self-soothe, to pull herself together.
What if my child doesn’t get to “three” but frequently gets to “two”? Should I give her a lighter punishment?
As a matter of fact, when your child is able to stop before “three”, it’s best to reward her for being able regain control. Let your child know that you are pleased that she was able to pull it together before a time-out was necessary.
Check back tomorrow for Step #5
Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP