Time‑out: Time‑out is a reasonable form of discipline in which the adult requires a child to spend time in a particular place, such as five minutes in a time-out chair. We will discuss two components of discipline, limit setting and consequence provision, so that we can explain how best to use time out.
Limit setting: Children may misbehave because they do not understand or are not yet capable of behaving appropriately. Under those circumstances, parents should support, guide, and comfort, and provide the expectations and boundaries called limit setting. Punishment has no place.
Consequence provision: Parents provide consequences for good behavior (rewards) and consequences for misbehavior (punishment). Punishments should be reserved for those situations had both the understanding and capacity to behave but didn’t. The Lucy Daniels Center recommends that punishment be limited to disapproval or privilege withdrawal. We do not support punishments involving shaming or physical discipline.
Using time-out: Time out can be effective for limit setting or consequences. The following vignette illustrates time-out as limit setting.
7-year-old Joe did not stop running around the house when his mother asked him to stop. Joe’s mother, knowing her child, understood that Joe had great difficulty settling down when he became wound up. Joe’s mother led Joe to the time out chair, gently held him, explaining that he could leave when he had control over his body.
This next vignette illustrates time-out as a consequence.
Kareem pushed his younger brother down. 7-year-old Kareem’s mother put him in time-out for ten minutes knowing that Kareem could restrain himself from physical aggression. Kareem’s mother used time out to punish with temporary banishment and removal from pleasurable activities.
Guidelines for using time-out: Time‑out can be effective because it is simple to administer, understandable by the child, immediate, and not excessively harsh or shaming unless accompanied by such words or actions. Although it is often best to have a specific time‑out space at home, time‑out areas can also be found away from home.
We recommend that parents use time-out either to provide either limit setting or consequences, but not both. Using time-out in this clear way assists children to better understand the reasons for their behavior and for the discipline, and therefore to be better able to master their behavior.
Many parents instruct their children to think about their misbehavior during time-out. Children will rarely think about their behavior while in time‑out. They are much more likely to think about how long they have to stay in time‑out, or about how unfairly they have been treated. It is probably not a good idea to make a request that is unlikely to be fulfilled, because it sets up a failure.
How long?: Decisions about how long a child should remain in time‑out depend upon the child’s age, individual capacity to tolerate the time-out, and the nature of the situation. Time outs begin to be appropriate around age two. Short time‑outs are appropriate for 2-year‑old children, and somewhat longer time‑outs are appropriate for older children. One or two minutes of time‑out is probably ample for most 2-year‑olds – but, for some children, thirty seconds might seem like an eternity and be quite enough. Most 4 or 5-year‑old children tolerate and benefit from three to five minutes of time‑out.
Interacting with a child: We advise that parents may interact with their child during the time‑out if time-out is being used for limit‑setting and impulse containment, especially if interaction helps their child. There is no need to deprive a child of interaction, because parents would not be administering a consequence.
However, if parents are using the time‑out as a consequence, we recommend that they should minimize their interactions with their son or daughter, to the extent possible. Interaction undermines the consequence of time-out - the separation from activities and interaction with others.
Children under the age of four should not be isolated, and should be in the same room or be able to see their parent. Some independent and confident 4-year‑olds can begin to tolerate a time‑out in their room or other isolated place. Parents should not be a hurry to isolate a child, because premature isolation can contribute to separation anxiety.
Holding a child in time-out: Parents often wonder whether they should physically hold or restrain a child in time‑out. The answer depends upon the kind of holding and the use of the time-out.
Vigorous containment is a form of physical force and this is never appropriate. Physical containment that is firm or even pleasurable is reasonable if time‑out is being used for the purpose of limit setting. Anything that helps a child to settle down and regain control is appropriate. If it feels good, or involves the presence of the parent, so much the better!
Parents are in a dilemma when faced with a child who refuses to stay in a time‑out space being used as a consequence. An effort at mildly firm, non‑pleasurable physical control would be a reasonable step. Parents should keep their verbal interaction minimal, avoiding explanations and defensiveness. If time‑outs regularly require physical containment, they are probably not the best consequence for that particular child at that particular time. It is also best if parents do not use threats to maintain the time‑out – it is rarely helpful to pile consequence upon consequence, such as withdrawing a privilege if the child does not stay in the time‑out space. When time‑out becomes a battle of wills or the cause of excessive upset for a child, parents should use other consequences that don’t depend upon the child’s cooperation.
Time out is not the only way to discipline, but it a reasonable tool for parents. Time out also gives parents a chance to cool off, if that is needed. We hope that these guidelines help parents make time-out work for them on behalf of their son or daughter.
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