What to do When Time-Outs Don't Work
So you've heard great things about the magic of time-outs — removing your misbehaving preschooler from the action for a little solitary quiet time. The problem is, time-outs seem to have no effect on your child. Should you abandon this discipline method, or stick with it? Stick with it, but do a little time-out troubleshooting first.
What to do if:
Your preschooler doesn't take time-outs seriously. Consistency is the key here: Don't call a time-out today but skip it tomorrow for the same behavior because you're in a better mood. And always follow through on a warning if your child doesn't heed you.
It's also important to give the time-out on the spot. Don't wait 30 minutes — or even five — until it's more convenient. If you're out in public, give the time-out right where you are. At the supermarket, you might have your preschooler sit on the floor in an out-of-the-way corner, or take him to the car if he's out of control. If you wait until you get home, you lose the opportunity to use time-out in the way it's intended. As soon as a time-out is disconnected from the immediate behavior, it becomes a threat, and then a punishment, and doesn't teach your child much. Remember that the point of time-out is not to make your preschooler quake in his Keds. It's simply to help him (and you) cool off and regain self-control.
Your child won't stay put. Most preschoolers find it hard to sit still for more than a few seconds, let alone for three or four minutes. Don't feel you have to stick to the standard minute-per-year rule for time-outs; as soon as your child has calmed down and switched gears, the time-out has served its purpose.
If your preschooler refuses to go to his time-out place and stay there, he needs your help. Walk him to the chosen spot, and calmly instruct him to sit down. If he springs up, gently sit him back down again. Don't let these jack-in-the-box pop-ups become a game, though. If your youngster gets up a third time, simply sit down with him and hold him in your arms for the duration of the time-out. Do this consistently and without scolding. Don't show your anger or launch into a lecture; a neutral, matter-of-fact attitude works best. And it goes without saying that you should never jerk or force your preschooler to his time-out spot.
Your preschooler just gets into more trouble during a time-out. The idea of a time-out is to remove your child from whatever's getting him worked up — not to remove your attention from him. Though it's a popular time-out spot, a child's bedroom may not be the best place to encourage "quiet time." First, it's likely to be out of your sight (and possibly earshot as well). Second, since your preschooler may still be learning to sleep well on his own, his bedroom should be a sanctuary rather than a site for discipline. Instead, choose a nearby chair, a corner, or another safe spot that's away from a lot of distractions — then stay there with him if need be.
Your child cries and yells through the whole time-out. It's upsetting to listen to, but a dramatic show of tears doesn't mean the time-out isn't working. Angry protests are hard for kids this age to stifle. Your preschooler doesn't have to sit as quiet as a mouse to learn something from this suspension of activity. Your mission: To ignore the hubbub. Trying to get your preschooler to quiet down only introduces a new power struggle and distracts from the point you're trying to make. Most kids calm down eventually. Even if yours doesn't, the key issue is whether he continues to misbehave after the time-out. If his actions and composure improve, you've made your point.
It helps to begin a time-out before your child reaches the point of no return. Intervene with diversionary tactics at the first signs of an impending meltdown. If those don't work, go promptly to time-out.
Time-outs only make tantrums worse. Tantrums — those screaming, kicking fits that overcome almost every preschooler now and then — are utterly normal at this age. They tend to burst forth when your child gets especially frustrated, angry, or disappointed (usually because you won't let him have or do something) and he lacks both the verbal skills to express his feelings and the emotional skills to cope with them.
A tantruming preschooler has lost control, and only he can regain it — a period of parent-imposed calm won't necessarily help. As you've discovered, forcing your child to sit still just makes him madder. Rather than give a time-out during a temper tantrum, it's usually wiser to simply let the tantrum burn itself out. Hard as it is, do your best not to get swept up in your child's hysteria.
You can't seem to pull off time-outs away from home. This is a portable tactic. Even if you've designated a special spot for time-outs at home, you can still use the basic idea when you're out and about as long as you can find a relatively quiet spot to take your child. It could be a park bench, your car, or one of the less-traveled aisles at the grocery store. Use a calm, quiet voice to avoid embarrassing your preschooler and riling him further. Try to shrug off any embarrassment you might feel yourself, too — remember, you're just doing your job as a parent.
It seems as though your preschooler spends half the day in time-out. A child this age is constantly exploring — the world is one big experiment to him. He wants to discover what things are, how they work, and what he can (and can't) do. Along the way, of course, he does plenty of things that you'd rather he didn't, from cutting the hair off his sister's dolls to pulling all the petals off your prize roses. You can't rely on time-outs to correct every annoying act, though; not only will your preschooler find it hard to connect his actions with all that quiet time, but you also risk stifling his natural curiosity.
Save time-outs for instances when your preschooler needs to get his emotions under control or is being willfully disobedient, and ignore irritating but harmless acts. These explorations just prove that he's a normal, inquisitive child. Take a deep breath, steer him away from trouble spots, and substitute a less destructive activity. Above all, provide plenty of "time-in" — including encouragement, hugs, and kisses — whether or not he's doing something you like.
Reviewed by the BabyCenter Medical Advisory Board
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