In theory, the idea of a timeout as a
consequence for a child breaking the rules is a fantastic idea. The child is
removed from the activity or situation, and given time to reflect on what they
did to earn the consequence. Time away from the desired activity, friend or
toy is punishment in itself, right? It’s perfect! Except when it isn’t. It
turns out parents need to set themselves and their children up for timeout
success for the punishment to be really effective.
Consequences Need to be Immediate
Young children, especially toddlers, need an
immediate consequence when pushing against boundaries. So, if your child is
acting up at the grocery store, the threat of a timeout isn’t going to do much
when there's no immediate way to enforce it. Young children need to see the
connection between the behavior they did and the timeout that followed. If you wait until your TV show
is over or until after the drive home, it’s difficult for kids to make the
The goal of all consequences is to teach children
that their poor choices have a negative impact on their lives. The idea is
that, after enough timeouts, little Susie will stop pulling the cat’s tail and
laughing. She’ll learn that particular behavior is not acceptable. However,
many parents make the mistake of arbitrarily assigning timeouts for a wide
variety of incidents, instead of having a pre-determined list of behaviors they
are trying to modify.
According to Ennio Cipani, a clinical psychologist in
California and author of the book "Punishment on Trial," “There are a
number of mistakes that are made when using timeouts, and probably one of the
biggest ones is parents don't specify a behavior that timeout will be
used for consistently and reliably.”
Even a toddler can begin to police their
own bad behaviors if Mom and Dad are very specific about which infractions earn
a timeout. In this case, “pick your battles” is a perfect piece of advice!
Think about the most aggravating behaviors and select a timeout as a
consequence for the things you really want to change—think hitting,
biting, grabbing toys away from siblings running out into the street, etc.
Children thrive on ritual, and also need to know
what to expect when a consequence arrives after they display an unwanted
behavior. Having a predetermined place for your child to
serve his or her timeout adds to the consistency of the ritual, which makes
the lesson stick.
used effectively, it can deter unwanted behaviors and deescalate emotional
Stay Calm and Explain
One of the great things about timeouts is
that they de-escalate a situation that may be fraught with emotional
tension. The last thing you want to do is ruin that by losing your temper with
your child and connecting that to the timeout ritual. When you assign the
timeout, do so in a neutral tone of voice and also explain, very briefly, what
the child did to earn the timeout. “Maya, we do not hit our friends. You are in timeout now.”
This seems easy enough, right? In theory,
yes, but much of the time when our children are acting out, it can produce a
stress response in the parents as well. Before assigning the timeout, take a deep breath, remind yourself
that you are the adult (yes, we all need a little reminding about that
sometimes!) and make yourself mentally present. Get down to your child’s level,
and explain the behavior that earned them the consequence.
Tailor Your TimeOuts
There’s an old saying that a child’s
timeout should be as many minutes as their age. This isn’t a hard-and-fast
rule to stick to—it turns out that typically two to five minutes is plenty. My
daughter is 2, and her timeouts are three minutes. That allows her to calm
down a bit before rejoining the rest of the family.
Once you’ve started a timeout ritual, you
can adjust it to suit your needs. If your child is calm after two minutes, who
cares if they’re 5 years old? No two children are alike, so you need to do
what’s best for your family.
Parents need a toolbox of strategies for
discipline, and the timeout is definitely one to pull out when needed. When
used effectively, it can deter unwanted behaviors and de-escalate emotional
situations. Like any tool, timeouts need to be handled with care and used
appropriately. Once the ritual is defined and set, they work wonders. And, in these tough toddler years, we could all use a little miracle.