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Using Effective Time-Outs

angry child by time-out chair

Many parents use the same type of discipline for every problem situation. One tool, however, is rarely effective for all situations. Plus, overusing one particular tool also reduces its usefulness. Timeout is just one tool -- and it really isn't a "discipline" tool; it's an effective anger-management tool. Since the purpose of a timeout is to help someone regain control, it is most appropriate to use when someone has lost self-control or there is extremely disruptive behavior.

Most adults have the mistaken idea that the whole point of sending children to timeout is to make the child suffer for their misbehavior. "You go to your room (or chair) and think about what you did." The tone of voice usually implies, "and you suffer." Imposing suffering only brings on more resentment and power struggles. Effective discipline, however, teaches children lessons from their poor behavior choices, rather than punishing them. If you want timeouts to be constructive, try following these guidelines:

Develop a plan in advance. Teach children during a happy time about the value of a cooling-off period. Say, "When you feel like you're going to lose control, you can go (specify the place) and do something to make yourself feel better. Then, when you feel better, come out and we can work on a solution."

Teach children how to regain self-control. Suggest things the child can do to calm down while in timeout. Older children can help decide where to go and what they can do to help themselves calm down.

Allow the child to play. Many parents are upset when they find their child playing during timeout, but it's actually a good sign that the child has regained self-control. If they are ready to play, children might also be ready to do some problem solving.

Select a location for the time-out. Some children calm down faster when they are alone and in a quiet place. Other children have too much energy to be forced to sit still. Some children become more out-of-control and hurtful when they are forced to spend timeouts alone. These children can cool off in the same room as other people, as long as they aren't disruptive.

Some parents hesitate to use a child's room for fear the child will view the bedroom as a prison. If the timeout is initiated kindly and the goal is to give the child and you some quiet space, children won't see it as punishment. If you feel the child will be destructive, plan ahead and remove or put objects you don't want destroyed out of reach.

If you force a child to stay in a chair or room, it shifts the focus from what they did and their responsibility for calming down to who is in power. This turns the timeout into a punishment, which removes its effectiveness.

Present time-outs as a choice. A child can choose to settle down or take some time out. Suggest the timeout in a kind and firm manner, followed by the encouraging instructions to come back when the child is ready.

Avoid timers. Use the child's ability to regain self-control or willingness to act appropriately to decide how long a timeout should last. Timers often turn timeouts into power struggles. If children have calmed down and are ready to return but parents won't let them "come out," it often escalates the situation. If children return before they have calmed down, firmly but kindly return them to the timeout and reemphasize the purpose is to cool off. Describe the behavior you want to see that shows they are calm.

When a timeout is over: If the child lost control due to anger, let it go and don't call attention to the behavior you want to stop. If the problem is serious or recurring, wait until both of you have calmed down and then use problem solving to generate ideas for handling the situation differently in the future.

Think about your long-term goal. If you want children to learn that it is their responsibility to control their behavior, use timeouts as cooling off periods which teach children how to achieve this self-control.