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Time-Outs for Kids: Ages 2-5

Time-out is a way of disciplining your youngster for misbehavior without raising your hand or your voice. Time-out involves removing your youngster from the good stuff in life, for a small amount of time, immediately following misbehavior. Time-out for kids is similar to penalties used for hockey players. 

When a hockey player has misbehaved on the ice, he is required to go to the penalty area for two minutes. The referee does not scream at, threaten, or hit the player. He merely blows the whistle and points to the penalty area. During the penalty time, the player is not allowed to play, only watch. Time-out bothers hockey players because they would rather play hockey than watch. Keep this hockey comparison in mind when using time-out for your youngster. 

Kids usually do not like time-out because they would rather play than watch other kids play. So when you use time-out in response to a misbehavior, remove your youngster from whatever he or she is doing and have him or her sit down.

Where should the time-out area be located?

You do not have to use the same location each time. Just make sure the location is convenient for you. For example, using a downstairs chair is inconvenient when the problem behavior occurs upstairs. An adult-sized chair works best, but a step, footstool, bench, or couch will also work. Make sure the area is well-lit and free from all dangerous objects. Also make sure your youngster cannot watch TV or play with toys.

How long should time-out last?

The upper limit should be one quiet minute for every year your youngster has been alive. So if you have a 2-year-old, aim for two quiet minutes. Keep in mind, kids do not like time-out, and they can be very public with their opinion. So it may take some time to get those two minutes. This is especially true in the beginning when kids do not know the rules and still cannot believe you are doing this to them. For some reason, the calmer you remain, the more upset they are likely to become. This is all part of the process. Discipline works best when you administer it calmly.

So, do not begin the time until your youngster is calm and quiet. If your youngster is crying or throwing a tantrum, it does not count toward the required time. If you start the time because your youngster is quiet but he or she starts to cry or tantrum, wait until your youngster is quiet again and then start the time over. Do not let your youngster leave time-out unless he or she is calm; your youngster must remain seated and be quiet to get out of time-out. Some programs suggest using timers. Timers can be helpful but are not necessary. If you use one, remember the timer is to remind moms & dads that time-out is over, not kids.

What counts as quiet time?

Generally, quiet time occurs when your youngster is not angry or upset, and is not yelling or crying. You must decide when your youngster is calm and quiet. Some kids get perfectly still and quiet while in they’re in time-out. Other kids find it hard to sit still and not talk. Fidgeting and “happy talk” should usually count as being calm and quiet. For example, if your son sings or talks softly to himself, that counts as quiet time. Some kids do what we call “dieseling,” which is the quiet sniffling that usually follows a tantrum. Since a “dieseling” youngster is usually trying to stop crying but cannot find the off switch, this also should be counted as quiet time.

What if the youngster leaves the chair before time is up?

Say nothing! Calmly (and physically) return your youngster to the chair. For kids who are 2 to 4 years old, unscheduled departures from the chair are a chronic problem early in the time-out process. Stay calm and keep returning the youngster to the chair. If you tire or become angry, invite your spouse (or any adult who is nearby) to assist you as a tag-team partner. If you are alone and become overly tired or angry, retreat with honor. But when help arrives or when your strength returns, set the stage for another time-out.

What if my youngster misbehaves in the chair?

Say nothing and ignore everything that is not dangerous to youngster, yourself, and the furniture. I repeat: Say nothing! What do I mean by nothing? I mean not anything, the absence of something, the empty set, the amount of money you have when you have spent it all, the result of two minus two or what zero equals. I mean nothing. Most of your youngster’s behavior in the chair is an attempt to get you to react and say something, anything. So expect the unexpected, especially if you are a nagger, screamer, explainer, warner, reasoner, or just a talker. And I mean the unexpected. They may spit up, wet, blow their nose on their clothes (you may be tempted to say “Yecch” but…do not), strip, throw things, make unkind comments about your parenting skills, or simply say they do not love you anymore. Do not worry. They will love you again when their time is up, believe me.

When should I use time-out?

When you first start, use it for only one or two problem behaviors. After your youngster has learned to “do” time-out, you can expand the list of problem behaviors. In general, problem behaviors fall into three categories: 1) anything dangerous to self or others; 2) defiance and/or noncompliance; and 3) obnoxious or bothersome behavior. Use time-out for “1” and “2” and ignore anything in category “3.” If you cannot ignore something, move it into category “2” by issuing a command (e.g., “Take the goldfish out of the toilet.”). Then if the youngster does not comply, you can use time-out for noncompliance. Be sure to use time-out as consistently as possible. For example, try to place your youngster in time-out each time a targeted behavior occurs. I realize you cannot be 100 percent consistent because it is in our nature to adapt. But be as consistent as you can.

In general, immediately following a problem behavior, tell your youngster what he or she did and take him or her to time-out. (With older kids, send them to time-out.) For example, you might say, “No hitting. Go to timeout.” Say this calmly and only once. Do not reason or give long explanations to your youngster. If your youngster does not go willingly, take him or her to time-out, using as little force as needed. For example, hold your daughter gently by the hand or wrist and walk to the time-out area. Or, carry her facing away from you (so that she does not confuse a hug and a trip to time-out). As I suggested earlier, avoid giving your youngster a lot of attention while he or she is being put in time-out. Do not argue with, threaten, or spank your youngster. And what should you say? Hint: Starts with “No”’ and ends with “thing.” Answer: Say nothing!

What do I do when time is up?

When the time-out period is over, ask your youngster, “Are you ready to get up?” Your youngster must answer yes in some way (or nod yes) before you give permission for him or her to get up. Do not talk about why the youngster went into time-out, how the youngster behaved while in time-out, or how you want your youngster to behave in the future. In other words, do not nag. If your youngster says “No,” answers in an angry tone of voice, or will not answer all, start time-out over again. If your youngster chooses to stay in the chair, fine. It is hard to cause real trouble in time-out.

What do I do when my youngster leaves the chair?

If you placed your youngster in time-out for not doing what you told him or her to do, repeat the instruction. This will help teach your youngster you mean business. It also gives your youngster a chance to behave in a way that is good for business. If he or she still does not obey the instruction, then place him or her in time-out again. In addition, add in a few other easy-to-follow, one-step commands. If he or she does them, praise the performance. If not, back to time-out. Generally, use this opportunity to train your youngster to follow your instructions when those instructions are delivered in a normal tone of voice without being repeated.

The general rule for ending time-out is to praise a good behavior. Once time-out is over, reward your youngster for the kinds of behaviors you want him or her to use. Catch them being good.

Should I explain the rules of time-out to my youngster?

Before using time-out, you should explain the rules to your youngster once. At a time when your youngster is not misbehaving, explain what time-out is (simply), which problem behaviors time-out will be used for, and how long time-out will last. Practice using time-out with your youngster before using the procedure. While practicing, remind your youngster you are “pretending” this time. They will still go “ballistic” when you do your first real time-outs, but you will be reassured that you have done your part to explain the fine print.

  1. Be specific and brief when you explain why your youngster must go to time-out.
  2. Catch them being good.
  3. Choose time-out areas.
  4. Do not talk to or look at your youngster during time-out.
  5. Explain time-out.
  6. If you wanted your youngster to follow an instruction, give him or her another chance after time-out is over. And, in general, deliver a few other easy-to-follow commands so your youngster clearly learns who is in charge and who is not.
  7. If your youngster gets up from the chair, return him or her to the chair with no talking.
  8. Use time-out every time the problem behaviors occur.
  9. Your youngster must answer yes politely when you ask, “Would you like to get up?”
  10. Your youngster must be calm and quiet to leave time-out once time is up.

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