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Correcting Misbehavior with Time-Out

This article discusses the best practices when using the "time-out" as a punishment tool.

In this article, you will find:

Effective when used properly

Correcting Misbehavior with Time-Out

Judy was 22 but looked much older. She had four children, the oldest six years old. She was five months pregnant and had no time for herself. There was fatigue in her voice. Her four-year-old son, Randy, was driving her crazy. She was not able to manage his tantrums and demands. With tears of desperation, she told how she spent most of her time: "All I do is yell. He never does anything I ask. He just runs around the house making a mess. I don't have time for my other children because of him. I have to do something before this baby is born." After learning about time-out, Judy knew she had a tool--one that would work.

Judy went home and prepared. Randy began the next morning as usual. He refused to come to the breakfast table. Judy put him in time-out. Judy told him to sit quietly for five minutes; then he could come out. Randy refused to be quiet. He screamed, yelled, cried, and did everything that an enraged four-year-old child can imagine. He was in time-out for an hour and a half. Judy did not give up. She stayed calm, and she was consistent. Finally, he sat quietly for five minutes. He came out and had his breakfast. It was ten o'clock.

Judy's second battle occurred just after noon. Randy refused to lower the volume on the television when asked. Judy placed him in time-out. His resistance was weaker, his will was not as strong, and his tantrum less violent. He was in time-out for only 20 minutes.

Judy used time-outs on several other occasions that first week. It became easier to use each time. She trusted time-outs. In return, it gave her confidence. Her son was less defiant. Within two weeks, her son was listening. Judy was managing him without screaming and chasing.

Time-out is an effective method. It is a replacement for yelling, scolding, threatening, and spanking. A time-out prevents your children from pushing your buttons. To use a time-out means to place your child in a dull and boring place for a few minutes. It means time away from the group, time away from the fun. A time-out means that your child spends time away from anything positive. Being denied activity is a kind of punishment.

Three-year-old Laura was a bedtime procrastinator. Laura began screaming and having a tantrum as soon as Donna mentioned bedtime. Pajamas were wrestled on every night. Nagging followed the pajamas: "Can I have a drink of water?" "Would you read me a story?" "There is something wrong with my pillow." Donna believed that these bedtime battles were not caused by any fears, but because Laura wanted power and control.

Donna used time-out to get Laura to bed. If Laura argued or began whining, she would go to time-out. If Laura refused to go to bed in any way, she would go to time-out. Donna was consistent. When Laura argued or whined, Donna put her in time-out. Then every five minutes, Donna would ask Laura if she was ready to go to bed. After 15 or 20 minutes of sitting alone, Laura was ready to go to bed. In two weeks, Donna sent me a note: "I am beginning to think of the way I disciplined Laura in two ways, before time-out and after time-out. The difference is fantastic. Bedtime is so easy now. She never gets upset or argues. Even when my older children stay up later than she."

Why does time-out work so well? It works because it gives you a tool to back up what you say. Time-out is a teaching technique, a mild punishment that you administer quickly and easily. Time-out works because children do not like it, and will behave to avoid it. Here is an overview.

The first step is to select the right setting. Next, choose one misbehavior that you want to eliminate. Finally, explain time-out to your child. Describe the misbehavior that must stop. Explain that the misbehavior will result in a time-out. You will need a timer that sounds a bell or a buzzer. An oven timer works fine, as long as your child can hear it from where they are spending their time-out. It may help to have two timers. One for the child to see and one for you. Explain that yours is the official clock! Each of these steps is explained later.

There are other aspects of this method that you need to understand for time-outs to be most effective. Time-out is most useful for children between the ages of two and twelve. With certain cautions, you can use time-out with children who are younger than two years old. You can use time-out with children as old as fourteen, but it may not be as effective. Reality consequences and restriction are more appropriate punishments for teenagers.

Use time-out with determination and planning, not impulsively. Your child must be able to predict when they might receive time-out. Your child must understand when and how you will use time-out. If you use it for arguing, do not send your child to time-out for messing up the family room. Choose a more suitable punishment, such as cleaning the family room or other rooms in the house. Your child needs to understand how time-out will work in advance of its initial use. Never use time-out as a surprise.

Use time-out consistently. Once you have said that time-out will punish a misbehavior, do so always--no exceptions. Do not slack off, give in, or make excuses. If you do not follow through, even once, you will make the problem worse. You will be creating more work for yourself in the future.

Remain cool and calm when you use time-out. If you let your child push your buttons, time-out will not work. If you get angry, time-out will not work. If you find yourself yelling and screaming when you use time-out, it will not work. If your child succeeds in getting you upset, the effects of time-out will be weakened. If you feel a surge of anger, walk away. Calm down. Then return to the situation. I knew a father who put himself in time-out until he cooled off. He would go for a walk or lie down for a while. He knew that interacting with his children when he was angry always had bad results.

The initial episodes of time-out may be difficult. Some children spend over an hour in time-out on the first few occasions. Early in my career, I worked at a home for boys. A child spent two hours in time-out one day. He had misbehaved and needed to sit quietly for ten minutes. He chose to yell and scream obscenities for two hours before he sat quietly for ten minutes. We hated to hear this child in such a rage, but he had to learn that his tantrums would not work. He had to learn to follow the rules.

Some children really work you over in the beginning. Be prepared, particularly if your child has been getting his way for the last four or eight or ten years. Please be assured that after the first few episodes, time-out gets easier for everyone. There will be a day when your child no longer becomes angry when sent to time-out. There will be a day when you will not need time-out at all.

Using time-outs must be part of a total plan to improve your children's behavior, but they should be only a small part of the plan. The larger part of the plan should emphasize the positive aspects of your children's behavior. Focus 90 percent of your energy on positive behaviors. Catch your children being good. If you take the positive for granted, improvements in your child's behavior will not occur. If you use time-outs to correct misbehavior and forget to reinforce good behavior, time-outs will not be effective. Without the positive emphasis, using time-out by itself will not work. It will not make a lasting change. Time-out will become another form of punishment that your child will learn to tolerate.

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