As I discussed in my last blog, decades of research have shown that, when used correctly, time-out is an effective discipline strategy for the majority of children. However, in order for it to be effective, parents need to be comfortable with the practice and have a clear understanding of when and how to use it. Below, I’ll walk you through the steps for using a time out effectively (specifically, with positive interactions and learning opportunities before and after). Proper preparation is essential for the effective use of a time-out.
With regard to the use of time-outs, it is important to embed them within a behavioral approach that establishes clear and consistent rules, offer numerous opportunities for praise and reward, and use them sparingly. Time-out does not work by itself, but must be preceded and followed by positive interactions between parent and child that allow for continued learning and development of new self-control skills. For a great blog on the importance of balancing positive/negative interactions with your child, see Dr. Brooks’s recent post on the “magic ratio” in parenting.
Preparation for Time-Out
Establish What Behaviors Warrant Time-Out:
For minor misbehavior, ignoring and re-direction are often effective methods. However, a time-out may be a good response for more serious behavior, such as:
- Dangerous behavior (like running away from you in a store)
- Aggressive behavior (such as biting or hitting another child)
- Breaking a family rule or not following a parent’s directions after a warning
Develop Family Rules:
Prior to using a time-out, it is important to first work with your child to develop clear, age-appropriate house/family rules. Family rules are for behaviors that are never OK. For younger children, it is often helpful to make the rules concrete and to limit the list to 3-4 family rules (e.g., be gentle and safe –no hitting or hurting someone else; use nice words – no name-calling or yelling; follow parents’ directions). The entire family can work together to create this list, and children might enjoy decorating a visual chart to post in the house.
Explain and Demonstrate Consequences:
After your child has a clear understanding of the rules, it is important to explain the consequences of breaking a rule. Explain to your child that consequences may include losing a privilege or reward or having to go to time-out. It is also a good idea to have a spot in mind, such as a chair, for time-out. Here are some tips for choosing an effective time-out spot.
Once you are familiar with the steps of time-out (which we’ll discuss in-depth in our next blog), introduce time-out to your child by explaining when it will happen and role-playing the process with a stuffed animal. Walk through each of the steps of time-out using “Mr. Bear” as the child. Allow the child to practice a few times on their own, reminding him why Mr. Bear is being praised and/or given a warning and time-out. Walking through the process will ensure that your child has a clear understanding of time-out before it is ever used.
Next up, we’ll discuss carrying-out an effective time out and provide some video examples.