Do you struggle with using time-outs as a discipline technique? As indicated on the Continuous Triangle of parent interaction, setting clear limits for your children gives them a sense of safety and security. It helps them feel confident that if they get out of control, you can handle their momentarily troubling behavior and settle things down. One of the limit-setting and behavior management methods you’ve probably learned about is the use of time-out. Unfortunately, parents aren’t usually taught the real purpose of time-out, nor are they taught how to skillfully implement the strategy. Regrettably, parents frequently say to me: I’ve tried time-outs and they don’t work.
As indicated on the Continuous Triangle of parent interaction, setting clear limits for your children gives them a sense of safety and security. It helps them feel confident that if they get out of control, you can handle their momentarily troubling behavior and settle things down. One of the limit-setting and behavior management methods you’ve probably learned about is the use of time-out. Unfortunately, parents aren’t usually taught the real purpose of time-out, nor are they taught how to skillfully implement the strategy. Regrettably, parents frequently say to me: I’ve tried time-outs and they don’t work.
No strategy works all the time, every time, but when used correctly, time-outs can and do work quite well. Used properly, time-out is a great intervention method you can keep in your behavior management toolbox.
In this chapter, you will learn how to simplify and fine-tune your use of time-out so that it works better for you. Using this method, you will maintain your own dignity while respecting your children and helping them learn to take responsibility for how they are acting. This implementation of time-out also works when implementing a “grounding” strategy for older children.
Many experts teach parents to use a timer and routinely make a time-out last one minute per year of age (so your five-year-old is in his room for five minutes and your eight-year-old stays sitting in a chair for eight minutes). The child is released from time-out when she has completed her time. Additional components may be added to the strategy, such as waiting for the child to calm down, but the primary focus is most often on just getting through the required time period.
The problem with this approach is that the parent has the pressure of managing the time-out, including how long a child is in time-out. The period of time in time-out is really irrelevant to the purpose of this behavior management strategy.
A time-out should be used to isolate a child to:
1) interrupt inappropriate behavior
2) focus on changing the behavior. Using my simplified method, the child must decide to act differently, and he is basically in control of how long it takes him to complete his two jobs while in time-out.
When a child is disrespectful toward property and/or people, time-out serves as a logical social consequence. It can be used to intentionally interrupt a given behavior and set your child apart from the situation. The message of time-out is this:
You don’t have the privilege of having your things and/or the privilege of being around people until you solve this problem.
You may be surprised to learn that you can take some pressure off yourself by putting your child in charge of having a successful time-out. This is accomplished by expecting him to take responsibility for how he got himself into trouble and setting boundaries with him so that he controls how long the time-out lasts.
To simplify time-outs, say to your child:
Your job is to:
(1) Tell the truth about what you did without blaming anyone else, and
(2) Convince me that you are going to change how you were acting by telling me, at least, one thing you will do differently next time.
Your time-out is over when you do those two things.
This method works because steps 1 and 2 put you, the parent, ultimately in charge, but the child has responsibility for the outcome. The pressure is off both of you; you no longer have to figure out how long to keep your child in time-out, and he doesn’t sit in time-out wondering about what he can do to redeem himself.
Stay focused on the purpose. It is the child’s job to fix the trouble by changing behavior, so plan to ignore any complaints and avoid re-explaining. Let him know that he has to tell you how he will change a specific behavior. When implementing step 2, you might try saying something like:
I don’t just want to hear “I won’t do it again.” That doesn’t convince me that you are serious about changing how you are acting. Tell me one or two specific things you are going to do as soon as you get out of time-out.
You claim a lot of power by expecting to be convinced. Your child should receive no freely given privileges until the behavior is resolved. If you aren’t convinced in the truest sense of the word, immediately leave and let your child know that you will come back and check to see if he is ready to fix the trouble.
In summary, here are the three basic questions you need to answer for yourself when fine-tuning time-out:
1. Have I taught my child precisely what I expect during a time-out?
2. What is my child’s “job” during a time-out?
3. How does my child get out of time-out?
Below is a letter I received from a very enthusiastic mother and preschool teacher after she practiced these methods:
I am a mom with a 4-year-old daughter. I used to dread the idea of putting her in time-out. I would put her on the time-out spot for a minute for each year old she was and she would fight me every step of the way. Every time she got out of the time-out spot, I would put her right back and put more time on the clock. It got to the point that the time-outs were more about how much time she needed to be there and her behavior while in time-out rather than why she was put there in the first place. Sometimes I would even forget why!
Greg gave me a new approach to try and it was different from the get-go. When we tried it for the first time, I was amazed at how well it worked, and easy it was. It is all about giving her the choice of how long she would be in time-out. I told her she needed to sit in the time-out spot and come up with two things to do differently next time and then she could come out and tell me what they were. She sat in the time-out spot for 15 minutes without a fuss and when she came out she told me she why she was in time-out and the two things she would be doing differently. It was so easy! This gave us both time to cool down to think about what happened and gave her responsibility for her own actions. It worked so well for her that I started using it in my preschool classroom. It works great there as well. For the younger students, we alter it a little, working together on things to do differently next time. But they get to decide how long they want to sit alone and think. They normally stay there without fuss for about five minutes and then decide to talk to me about what they did. I would suggest this to any parent. It works for all children and gives you a headache-free time-out.
Since I started using this method a month ago, we rarely have to repeat time-out for the same behaviors. I suggest that everyone try it!
Take a moment to reflect…
One point on the Continuous Triangle is Consistently set limits. Ask yourself these questions:
What do I believe about setting limits?
Do I believe that I need to be skilled at setting clear limits for your children?
Am I willing to practice, knowing that I will get better over time?
Greg Warburton is a licensed mental health counselor who helps children and parents become instruments of their own healing and change. He is a dedicated innovator who brings emotional and mental self-managements methods into the worlds of parenting and youth sport performance. As an award-winning college instructor, he helps people eliminate self-defeating behaviors and achieve the inner freedom that comes with becoming self-reliant. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon with Valoy, his wife of 31 years. His website is www.selfreliantkids.com