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When Time Out Isn’t

We often read about the power of Time Out as a child discipline strategy (remembering, of course that discipline is to teach, not punish). Yet in practice, for both parent and child, Time Out can feel a lot more like TimeTogether. Take for example this quite common situation: the child leaves the “time-out chair” and the parent then repeatedly returns the child to the chair or even holds the child in the chair.

When it includes constant supervision and parental input, Time Out can look and feel more like Mom-time (or Dad-time).

So what are the elements of Time Out that make it both effective and appropriate as a teaching strategy?

For children still developing the developmental tools of self-regulation and reflective thought—toddlers, preschoolers, and some early elementary children—Time Out functions mostly as behavioral training. To work this training must:

  • correspond to the action or social interaction that is harmful or potentially harmful.
  • have a pattern that a very young child can recognize: “When I do [harmful act], I am moved away or the other goes away.

The expected outcome is that the behavior does not continue because there is no value in it for the child.

So, when toddler delivers an intentional punch to Mom, an appropriate Time Out would be a firm, calm “No.” Mom turning her face away and, depending on the child’s intensity and intent, stepping away from the child for a short time.

The general rule for Time Out is one minute per age of the child (2-yr-old = 2 mins). The message (behavioral training) is that hitting does not result in more engagement from Mom—in other words, hitting is not reinforced by more interaction. And, at this age, when Time Out is done, it’s done. Don’t ask for an apology, don’t talk about it, move on.

Note: While it’s always good to take the step of empathy and understand the why behind the punch—an internal frustration, perhaps, or exploring a new way to engage—it’s important to respond. For the child’s learning and for Mom’s safety, we do not want to reinforce a pattern.

When Time Out inadvertently becomes Time-with-Mom

If the Time Out follows the general rule (no more than one minute per age of the child) and the parent or caregiver has been clear with words and body language that Time Out is not a time of interaction, yet the child is leaving the Time Out spot or forcing engagement in some other way, it is a sign that something else is going on (a too-tired and too-stressed body, perhaps, a strong need at that moment for the caregiver’s attention, etc.) and that, at this time, Time Out is not the best strategy.

In working with children this young there are behavioral training strategies other than Time Out that may be more satisfying for Moms and caregivers. For example, another approach is to watch closely for cues that the toddler may hit, and just prior to the hit, guiding the hand to touch Mom softly. This is, on one level, teaching appropriate physical interactions, it is also creating a positive interaction that is further reinforced as mom engages her child with her happy face and eye contact.

Time Out for the older child

As children move from toddlerhood to and through preschool years, the use of Time Out is openly understood as a logical consequence to a child’s behavior that hurts another. It is used most often to allow time for children to self-calm so that they are better able to re-engage in social problem-solving with peers and siblings. Preschool age children are multi-tasking at a whole new level. They have to manage their bodies whether at play or in anger. They have to incorporate the social/safety rules for themselves and others. And they have to use a sophisticated level of verbal skill in practicing those social rules.

For example, if a child were to shove another to get quick access to a toy, the caregiver is likely to make a brief statement of “it’s not safe to push a friend” and place the child in a pre-determined Time Out area removed from others. This does not necessarily demand that the child be fully removed from the play area, but they may not be engaged with others.

When the child returns from Time Out they can be helped by having opportunity to talk through a plan for how to play safely, or coached with words to use to negotiate use of the toy. This is an opportunity to learn positive ways to interact with others and to re-establish the link between the children and caregivers. This is not a time to verbally replay everything the child did wrong!

Time Out works for adults, too

Just as for preschool children, when we have been hurtful to others through our words or actions, it can provide us an opportunity to self-calm. However, because we have more physical, mental, and moral maturity, Time Out is also an opportunity to layer on yet another level of sophisticated thought. We can reflect on our own behavior and make action plans for how to do better next time. Learning to parent children of any age is hard work. There will be occasion to show children that self-discipline is sometimes best modeled by the gift of Time Out; taking moments away to self-calm and to plan how best to proceed.

Remember that no one is perfect, child or adult. Our efforts to teach the youngest members of society can bring our ideals and hopes into focus. When we struggle to live to an ideal, we need to remember to model compassion for ourselves as well as our children.

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