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Using Time-Out For Behavioral Problems

By Morrisa Drobnick, LCSW

Time-out involves placing your child on a chair for a short period of time following the occurrence of an unacceptable behavior. This procedure has been effective introducing problem behaviors such as tantrums, hitting, biting, failure to follow directions, leaving the yard without permission, and others. Parents have found that time-out works better than spanking, yelling, or threatening their children. It is most appropriate for children from 18 months through 10 years.

  1. Preparations:

    1. You should purchase a small portable kitchen timer.

    2. A place for time-out should be selected. This could be a chair in the hallway, kitchen, or corner of a room. It needs to be a dull place (not your child’s bedroom) where your child cannot view the television or play with toys. It should not be a dark, scary or dangerous place. The aim is to remove your child to a place where not much is happening, not to make your child afraid.

    3. You should discuss with your spouse which behaviors will result in time-out. Consistency is very important.

  2. Practicing:

    1. Before using time-out for discipline, you should practice using it with your child at a pleasant time.

    2. Tell your child their rules when in time-out:

      1. Rule 1: The timer will start when he is quiet. Ask your child what would happen if he talks or makes noises when in time-out. Your child should say the timer will be reset or something similar. If he does not say this, remind him of the rule.

      2. Rule 2: The time-out chair is for sitting. No standing, reading, or getting out of the chair or the time will be reset.

      3. Rule 3: Nothing other than you child should be in the chair. No food, drink, toys, books. Only a tissue (not the box) for tears. This is a time not to be distracted. It is a time for your child to think about behavior.

    3. After explaining the rules and checking out your child’s understanding of the rules, go through the steps under “C”. Tell your child you are
      “pretending” this time.

    4. Mention to your child you will be using this technique instead of spanking, yelling, or threatening. Most kids are pleased to learn this.

  3. Procedure:

    1. Step 1: Following an inappropriate behavior, say to the child, “Oh, you… (describe what the child did).” For example, “You hit your sister. Go to time-out please.” Say this calmly and only once. It is important not to lose your temper or begin nagging. If your child has problems gtetting to the chair quickly, guide him with as little effort as needed. This can range from leading the child part way by the handto carrying the child to the chair. If you have to carry your child to the chair, be sure to hold him facing away from you so he doesn’t confuse a hug with a trip to time-out.

    2. Step 2: When your child is on the chair and quiet, set the timer for a specific number of minutes. The rule of thumb is one minute for each year of age up to five minutes. A two year old would have two minutes; a three year old, three minutes; and a five year old, live minutes. For children five years and above, five minutes is the maximum amount of time. If your child makes noises, screams, or cries, reset the timer. Do this each time the child makes any noises. If your child gets off the chair before the time is up, replace the child on the chair, and reset the timer. Do this each time the child gets off the chair. If tantrum behavior continues walk away (out of the room) until it stops. Return child to chair. Don’t try to talk your child out of the tantrum. Say, “I feel bad you are feeling so upset.”

    3. Step 3: After your child has been quiet and seated for the required amount of time, the timer will ring. Go to the time-out chair and ask your child if he would like to get up. Do not speak from across the room. A nod of the head or a positive or neutral answer is required. Answering in an angry tone of voice or refusing to answer is not acceptable. If your child is still mad, he will probably get into trouble again in a short period of time. Should your child answer in an angry tone or refuse to answer, rest the timer. Your child may then answer appropriately, but once the time timer is reset it must go to the full amount of time. You are the one who should divide when your child gets off the time-out child, not your child.

    4. Step 4: As soon as your child is off the time-out chair, you should ask if he wishes to repeat the behavior which led him there in the first place. For example, “Would you like to hit your sister again so I can put you in time-out and then you will learn the rule?” Generally, children say no or shake their head. You can then say, “I’m happy you don’t want to hit your sister.” If you child should take you up on this offer and repeat the unacceptable behavior, calmly place him in time-out. Although this may sound like you are daring your child to misbehave, it is better if he repeats the behavior in your presence. That way, your child will have several opportunities to learn that unacceptable behaviors result in time-out.

    5. Step 5: After your child finishes a time-out period, he should start with a “clean slate.” It is not necessary to discuss, remind, or nag about what the child did wrong. Within five minutes after time-out, look for and praise good behavior. It would be wise to take your child to a different part of the house and start him in a new activity. Remember, catch ‘em being good.

  4. Summary of the Rules:

    1. For Parent:

      1. Decide about behaviors you will use time-out for ahead of time. Discuss these with your child.

      2. Don’t leave your child in time-out and forget about him.

      3. Don’t nag, scold or talk to your child when he is in time-out. All family members should follow this rule!

      4. Remain calm, particularly when your child is being testy.

    2. For Children:

      1. Go immediately to time-out when you’re asked to. Don’t argue.

      2. Remain quiet and stay on the time-out chair until you’re asked to get down. You’ll spend less time that way.

      3. The timer is not to be touched by any child in the house. If you do touch it, you will be placed in time-out.

    3. Brothers and Sisters:

      1. If you tease, laugh at, or talk with your brother or sister while they are in time-out, you will be placed on the chair and your brother or sister will get down.