One of the most important things about time out is that if you do choose to use it as a behaviour management tool, that you set it up to be successful. But what can we do to give ourselves and our kids, the best chance for this to happen?
When I was a child you were sent to your room for bad behaviour, or on the odd occasion you would find yourself with a smack. From having now spoken to thousands of families about behaviour management, the parents of today seem to be more aware of the alternatives to smacking due to the numerous books, educational talks and TV shows out there to enlighten us.
The popularity of time out has certainly taken off. But with this popularity have certainly come different interpretations as to what successful time out is, and how to achieve this. We all seem to get the “sitting for a time” bit, but there is so much more to time out that contributes to its success rate for you and your child.
Parents I have spoken to have reported using steps, corners, chairs, mats, hula hoops on the floor, and bedrooms as part of their time out ritual, with the majority of them using the age of the child as a guide to how many minutes they make their children sit for. The problem with this is that if you have a 4 year old who you know is not great at keeping still for more than a couple of minutes, you’re setting that child up for failure! If you know your child can only sit in time out for 2 minutes even though they are 4, then make it a minute and a half. All our children have different tolerance levels for sitting still. Children that find sitting difficult can tend to act up in the chair and a verbal battle between parent and child begins. This diverts the focus away from the reason the child has been asked to sit there in the first place. Try using the age of the child as a ceiling, rather than the time to sit for and avoid the verbal chit chat with your child while they are sitting on the chair.
As for the location of your time out, the first thing that must be kept in mind is respect and dignity. Facing the wall is not very dignified. We are not trying to break the child’s spirit, just their habits. Time out can be just as effective sitting on the lounge, TV off or course, or a seat alone at the dining room table.
When I ask parents what they are trying to achieve with time out the most popular answer is “to make them think”. The first thing you must understand with time out is that you can’t make children think. So if your goal is primarily to make them sit to think, then you have a good chance of failing before you even start. Many parents will go back to the child after X amount of time asking them “well, did you think about it”? If they did think about it, it’s more than likely not in the way you would of wanted, but rather that they sat there thinking how unfair it all is and how angry they are at you.
For some kids, they work out that time out is actually an opportunity to gain attention. This attention usually comes from rocking in the chair, yelling, crying, or kicking their legs. Our response to this is usually in the form of yelling back or threatening to start the time over again. The first thing to do is to realise that this is attention seeking behaviour. Fall prey to this game, you only set yourself up for a battle. Consistency is a killer, but consistency is king. Consistently ignore this poor behaviour, and your kids will soon work out that those strategies do not get them any attention, or off the time out spot any sooner.
For some families, time out has become overkill. It is used or threatened for every little kerfuffle that occurs in the household. Some parents use it so much kids can start to place themselves in time out even before being told to go there. Time out to the child simply becomes something the child has to hurry up and get over and done with so they can get off the chair. Watch how much you’re dishing out time out.
When you tell a small child you want them to sit there for five minutes, you may as well be saying three hours. Children’s concept of time is not great. It can be due to this lack of understanding that children can tend to do a runner off the chair or protest loudly. It simply may not feel achievable to them. Many parents use the microwave timer to keep time. But numbers going backwards to many children is not a great system for measuring time. The best way to keep time, one that feels far more achievable to children and one they can actually understand, is the sand timer. Its visual, you can see the time passing and it is far easier for a child to assess how much longer they have to sit. Because of this it feels more achievable for them to sit for the time requested. Kids are very visual creatures, so keep the timer in their view so they can see it passing, but do not give it to them. To see the time passing is a light at the end of the tunnel. A light at the end of the tunnel can mean less getting off the chair.
When you place kids on a time out spot try to remain as calm as possible. Your anger funnily enough can be interpreted as an opportunity to continually seek attention, hence the swaying chair or screaming child scenario. When you place them there tell them why, stressing feelings. Turn the timer over and throw a bit of power their way to gain co-operation. “Let me know when the timer has run out”. When you do return to the child you must ask then why you have put them there. If they say they don’t know then simply tell them. The old “you can sit there till you remember” is not helpful. Before they leave, talk about trying a different option next time in regards to their poor behaviour.
Once you tell your child that they can go, you should be starting a fresh with them, not continuing to discuss the happenings of what led to the time out. It should be talked about at the time and left at that. We as grow ups don’t like to be constantly reminded of our mistakes, kids are the same.
The best form of time out is the one you use when you can see trouble on the horizon. Prediction plays a large role in great behaviour management. As parents we predict all the time. “Let go of that it will break”, or “don’t touch that it will hurt”. Time out doesn’t have to be just about being in trouble. You should also be able to use it as a calming down tool. When my kids are a bit wild and I can see trouble brewing, I will simply ask them to sit and chill on the lounge for a short time. They are not in trouble, my aim is to avoid the trouble using something I call a “sit and chill”. Sometimes during these wild and woolly moments I will ask them to each go and sit on their bed, count 20 elephants then come back down. Still wild and woolly? 20 more elephants may await you.
I would not recommend time out for under two’s. They are too little to fully comprehend the time out situation. The best strategies for under two’s come in the form of distraction and designed ignoring. If you are doing time out with 2’s, ensure you are sitting next to the child for the duration. No eye contact, no chit chat, just sitting, and for a very small amount of time. 1 minute is more than enough.