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Oregon Family Magazine

Nanny Connection: Using Time Outs

03/01/2009 ● By Anonymous
I know you have written about time-outs, but I feel confused! I hear so many different ways to do time-outs… What is the right way?

Because time-outs can be an integral part to any discipline program, I think it is beneficial to re-visit this periodically. As with most parenting strategies, there is no “one way” that fits all children. The most effective parents are willing to think outside the box and use strategies that work for their children. This may mean that all the children in the same family are not on the same behavior plan.

My preference is to limit time-outs to safety issues (physical aggression; harm to self, others, personal property; etc.); and rely on logical consequences for everything else. This is because time-outs can become ineffective if it is the only decipline, and used starting when a child is a toddler. Also because logical consequences tend to put the responsibility back on the child: “Would I rather do what mom wants and not have a consequence (or have the positive consequence of her being pleased with me) or would I rather do what I want and have a consequence?”

The hope is that we (as adults) are preparing our children for real adult life, which operates mostly on logical consequences… i.e. If I go to work every day I will likely keep my job, and have enough money to live on – maybe even get a raise or promotion. If I am late, don’t call in, or go to work, I will likely lose my job and not be able to support myself. If I drive the speed limit I will likely not get a ticket. If I don’t, I may. If I get too many tickets I may lose my license, and so on.

A time-out means your child’s behaviors are such that they have lost the privilege of being with the rest of the family. Therefore, they are taking “time out” from interpersonal contact. It is best to have a place designated as the time-out area. I prefer the child’s bedroom, as there is a door that can be closed (and held shut) if needed. Some families use the bottom step, a corner of the kitchen or living room, or a chair that can be moved to an available space. When in the community, time-outs can be done in the car, by the side of the shopping cart, outside the restaurant, etc.

Time-outs should be “not fun” and should also be boring. It is not a time to play (even with the family pet), watch TV, or engage with family members. The more boring time-outs are, hopefully the more motivated your child will be to make choices that do not result in time-out. With older children, grounding is more appropriate and effective than time-out. Grounding is basically a long time-out, and should also be boring and not include privileges.

What is your child really losing if they have to stay inside all day, but have access to all their electronics, TV and telephone? My recommendation is that being grounded means to their room, with no privileges (phone, music, computer, TV, video games, etc). They can read, journal or sleep. They can come out for school and meals, and go back in until they are done. If being grounded is boring enough, it should help your child think before acting!

It is important that your child knows why they are being grounded or going to time-out. Give them the choice of following your directions or otherwise discipline. If they do not comply, give them the choice of taking themselves to time out, or having you “help” (escort) them. If they can be quiet and stay I their room, their door stays open. If not, you hold it shut. This is inconvenient, because you are not available to do other things, but is can be so effective, that it only takes a few times before time-outs go smoothly. If your child tests the time out tests (calling from their room, coming out of their room, etc.), is important that you follow through the first time and return them.

While on the way to time out and while in time-out, there should be no eye contact or voice contact. Do not directly look at them; although you can use your peripheral vision to be sure they are safe. Likewise, do not talk to them. Children will try to get your attention and distract you by needing a drink, having to go to the bathroom, etc. Time-out starts once they are calm. If your child is tantrumming for 15 minutes, their time-out starts after they have stopped. Every time they start up again or try to leave time-out, their time starts over. If they break anything out of anger, it goes in the garbage and is not replaced. If they damage the physical space, depending on the extent of the damage and their age, they can help pay for and/or repair the damage. Time-outs usually last one minute for every year the child is old.

Some parents prefer to talk with their child when they come out of time-out to ask them why they went to time-out and what they will do differently now. This may or may not be helpful given the age and temperament of your child. Experiment and see what works best. What works today may also stop working in the future. Part of effective discipline is always staying a few steps ahead of your child!

Another version of the time-out procedure is giving yourself a time-out when you need it. Taking space for yourself BEFORE you explode can be significant role modeling for your children. If you are raising your voice or nagging your children, you are working too hard. You have much better things to do with your time and energy! Take some space, which may mean locking yourself in the bathroom for a few minutes, and find ways to calm your self and feel more in balance.

Using time-outs in a preventative way can be effective with your children as well. Suggesting that your child go to their room (or the basement, outside, etc) to “chill”, relax, or take some deep breaths can help them learn an important coping skill that they will be able to use the rest of their life.