When Time Out Doesn’t Work


When little Cooper chucks a truck across the room, Lucy smacks her sibling, or Taylor bites, their parents may routinely make the classic call, “Time out!” But what do you do when the stand-by, catch-all discipline standard doesn’t work? And what do you do when the bad behaviors don’t improve or everyone involved in the time out melts into an emotional breakdown?

First and most importantly review your time-out strategy. Time out is a classic because, when done correctly, it works. Unfortunately, it’s simply an unpleasant waste of time if parents get caught in common pitfalls, such as poor timing or forgetting about rewards.

To implement successful time outs, parents should:
Check the timing. If a child is out of control when they reach time out, the child is no longer rational and the discipline is no longer effective. Likewise, if the parent’s emotions have escalated, then the time out is no longer for the child – it’s for the parent. To time it right, guide young ones to the pre-designated time-out area as soon as ugly behavior emerges.

In addition to tempers being tamer, children will see an immediate connection between the unwanted action and its consequence. Also, follow the age-old rule of one minute of time out for every year old the child is. So a six-year-old gets six minutes.

Reward children for participating in time out. Time outs should be a temporary time away from a reward or positive reinforcement – not a punishment. That means as soon as a child completes time out, parents should reward and return positive reinforcement.

Depending on the child’s age, this step can be handled in different ways. For example, if a four-year-old goes to time out for being unkind to a sibling, then he or she doesn’t get to play with their sibling or any toys while they’re solo and stationary for four minutes, but as soon as the timer dings, the child can give their sibling a hug, say, “Sorry,” and return to their reward of playing.

For a seven-year-old, with greater cognitive abilities, the youth can use seven minutes of time out to think about the bad behavior and how the situation should have been handled. When time’s up, a parent should engage the child in a detailed discussion and then resume play.

For a 13-year-old, sitting in time out for 13 minutes would be odd and pointless. Instead, parents should up the ante with more potent consequences, like time out from the cell phone, or time away from friends for the weekend. At the end of the time though, the reward returns.
Give random rewards for positive behavior. Punishment, in general, teaches how to not get caught, whereas positive reinforcement is the most effective way to teach and change child behavior.

Many adults have received a random speeding ticket – say $200 – but continue their high-speed habit. That’s because the consequence teaches drivers not to get caught; it doesn’t reward good behavior. If a police officer randomly pulled over a driver and presented an award of $200 for driving the speed limit, there’s a greater chance the adult will continue driving the speed limit in the future. It’s the same with children.

Pick the right rewards and use them as teaching tools. Each child is unique and different, so wear a creative, parental thinking cap when designing rewards suited specifically for each child. Be sure to steer clear from buying things at the store or using food as a reward. Instead, use rewards to teach children life skills and about life’s priorities. Try time with parents as a prize, or entice with a board game that teaches math skills, shooting hoops outside, or inviting a friend over. Create a Rewards Menu, from which a child can pick a reward. Children can select a small reward right after completing a time out, or choose a larger reward for establishing habits of good behavior.

As parents, our job is not to make our children happy. Our job is to teach our children skills. I believe parenting is the hardest job any human being has, and most parenting skills don’t come innately. When we fine tune our discipline skills by delivering timely time outs and creating a personalized reward system for good behavior, children can learn much more than simply “no hitting” or another unwanted action. They learn strong work ethics, self-discipline, self-esteem and vital life skills.