Utilizing time-outs to help your child improve their behavior is not as easy as it seems. These steps may not work the first time, but they will work with practice. I recently gave a complete parenting workshop at Pediatrics of New York called “How to Get Your Child to Listen Without Yelling.” Time-outs work best in conjunction with praise and ignoring. They should be used sparingly, given immediately after the negative behavior, and only last 1-3 minutes. Your child might actually refuse more in the beginning as you become more assertive. Remember that you are helping them to learn how to control their behavior. And if you want your child to behave differently, you have to change first!
- Use a calm voice – make sure you are not already angry or annoyed. Avoid sarcasm as well. Don’t yell. You want to try to remove all emotion from the interaction since intense emotional can actually be reinforcing to a child. Take a deep breath before you start.
- Plan ahead – think before you act. Know what you’re going to use as the time-out chair and backup time-out room (see below) and what consequence you’re going to offer if they refuse. The chair should be in a place where the child can still see the stimuli (what they are missing out on by being in time-out) and the time-out room should be completely devoid of fun (toys) and dangerous (low wall mirrors, reachable razors) items. NEVER GIVE A TIME-OUT IN THEIR BEDROOM.
- Clear, simple and direct – ask for what you want in a way that is not confusing. Give one command at a time. “Jason, please stop playing video games and come to the dinner table.” Make sure to wait 5 seconds after your command so they have able time to comply. Monitor your tone of voice and body posture so you appear assertive and confident. If your partner normally gets a better response from the children, have them stand with you for support and to show parental alliance.
- Give prompt – if they do not listen immediately, prompt them that they will have a time-out if they do not listen. “Jason, this is your prompt. If you do come to the dinner table now, then you will have a time-out.” “If-then” statements work well.
- Count – “One. Two. Three. You have a time-out”. Some parents count backwards: “Five, Four, Three, Two, One. You have a time-out.” Or, you can just wait 5 seconds for them to comply. Do whatever is easiest for your child to understand.
- Follow through – if they do not comply by the end of your count, give them the time-out; no questions asked. “You have a time-out for not listening and following directions. Take your time out in the chair for 3 minutes of quiet time.” No matter how much they beg or plead, you must keep to your word. Unless they become unsafe or destroy property, let them tantrum and cry as much as they need to.
- Verbal praise – if your child initially refuses and then begins to comply, give them a quick verbal praise as they make their way to the time-out chair. “Good walking to the chair.” Keep it very short. You don’t want to reinforce any negative behaviors while they are on time-out.
- Backup plan – while they are in time-out, do not look at them or give them any attention. If they keep talking or yelling or crying, tell them quickly their time-out will start when they are quiet and calm. If they get up early or refuse to stay on time out, you can offer to increase their time or take away privileges/reward. Or, if they are small enough, you can put them in a quiet room (bathroom) where they have to be quiet for 10 seconds. After the 10 seconds, they go back to the time-out chair to finish their original time out.
- Ready? – once the time is up and the child is quiet, ask them if they are ready to comply with your original command or engage in more positive behavior. For example, “John, are you ready to pick your clothes off the floor and put them in the hamper?” Or, “Amy, are you ready to sit quietly and safely at the dinner table?” If they say no, restart their time until they are ready. It’s important to give the child the feeling of control over their behavior and that are you are matter-a-fact about their decisions.
- Be flexible – if they are not accustomed to time-outs, you may need to start with a length of time that they can handle. The general rule of thumb is 1 minute of time-out per year of age, up to 5 minutes. More than 5 minutes loses its effectiveness. Some immature children may need 30 seconds in the beginning until they build mastery. Do what works and do it consistently.
- Praise again, then redirect – don’t engage in a lengthy discussion about why you gave the time-out. This will only give attention to and reinforce the negative behavior. Instead, if they walk calmly to the time-out area, praise them. And if they complete their time-out well, praise them again. Then re-direct them to complete or redo any tasks/chores they were given before the time-out so they don’t learn they can avoid by getting time-outs.
Written by Joshua Rosenthal, PsyD