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Are Timeouts Not Working on Your Toddler? Here's Why

Photograph by Twenty20

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.

Here's how:

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 connection.

Be Consistent

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.

When used effectively, it can deter unwanted behaviors and deescalate emotional situations.

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.

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