The Modern Time Out

Although they’re often misunderstood, when used correctly, time-outs are a simple and effective tool for managing behavior and helping your child develop the ability for self-regulation and deferred gratification.  This month’s series will focus on understanding how to use this powerful parenting tool.

Use time-outs frequently for minor misbehavior before things get too severe.  I use short (one-minute) time-outs with 2 to 16-year-olds to great effect at home and in the classroom.  Because the time-out is so short I get very little resistance once I’ve established a no-negotiation precedent.  I also stay strict about the time-out doubling if I get an argument.  You can take the emotional/oppositional element out of it with comments like, “You’re not it trouble.  I just need you to take a one-minute break” and “It’s no big deal.  You can come back to what you’re doing in one-minute.”

While longer time-outs may be necessary for more severe behavior (i.e. hitting) it is much easier to give frequent short time-outs for small behaviors and children are more likely to take your direction before things get too heated.  Think of yourself as an emotional air conditioner that turns on with a minute or two of cool air when things get to 75° instead of waiting until the temperature reaches 90°.

Recently someone asked me about how to handle crying during time-outs.  She and her friend had both read in my book Raising Lions that time-outs shouldn’t start until the child stops crying.  However, when she watched her friend use do this it didn’t look right to her.  When her friend’s 4-year-old son was given a time-out he began to immediately cry.  His mother told him to “Stop Crying!” and “I’m not going to start your time-out until you’re quiet.”  The boy’s crying continued and even got louder.  Every minute or so his mother would tell him “You need to stop!” or “I’ve told you to stop the crying.”  The other woman felt like it was unfair and ineffective to yell at the boy for crying and asked me what I thought.  Below is my response.

While time-outs shouldn’t start until your child has stopped crying you should also let your children know that crying is perfectly acceptable and natural.  The last thing we want to do is shame them for crying or create a power struggle when there’s no need for one.  So when a child is crying when they’re on time-out we can empathize and recognize their power while still holding a firm boundary.

If a child is crying when I’ve given them a time-out I might say, “Yeah, time-outs aren’t any fun.  If you need to cry that’s okay.  When you’re finished crying we’ll start the time-out”  (Sometimes when I say this the crying gets louder, they might even cry louder and yell, “I want to start the time-out now!” which is a clear indication the crying is at least in part a manipulation.)

If the crying continues I do my best to ignore it (so long as the child remains in the time-out chair) and will occasionally say to them, “Let me know when you’re finished and I’ll start your time-out.”  My tone is tender and empathetic, coach not adversary.  I also make an effort to let the child know that they, not me, have control over when they stop crying and therefore also control when the time-out starts. By recognizing their power and letting them know that I have no desire to control their choices I’m able to avoid a power struggle over that which I really have no control.

The purpose of requiring your child to stop crying before a time-out starts is so they will exercise self-regulation after a moment that lacked self-regulation.  Additionally, we want to take away any manipulation that might be motivating the crying.  Quite often, children have learned that if they cry loud enough then the adult will begin negotiating with them and the original consequence will be amended.  So crying or tantrums become effective tools to avoid or decrease consequences for behavior.

Time-outs are meant to be boring, a minute or two when the child is denied access to interaction or activities that are fun.  If an adult holds and comforts a child who’s crying because they’ve been given a time-out they are creating a reward in response to the misbehavior they are trying to discourage.

Time-outs are only effective if they’re boring.  If a parent or teacher talks with or comforts a child in an attempt to calm them down during the time-out they make the time-out interesting and deny the child the opportunity to exercise the psychological muscles of self- regulation and control.

The ideal time-out combines strictness and compassion in the same moment.  It asserts firmly the boundary while acknowledging the child’s power and choices without judgment.