As parents, we all have moments when our kids’ behavior gets out of line. We know spanking isn’t the answer, and timeouts seem like a violence-free alternative. But are they effective? Or are there better options?
In most cases there are, experts say.
Timeouts can be effective, but only when they’re short, calm, age-appropriate and infrequent, says Karen Gouze, a clinical psychologist for Children’s Memorial Hospital. Timeouts should only be used when a child has violated one of the major house rules, such as no hitting or biting, she explains. In those situations, a quick timeout can help calm an overwhelmed child and reinforce important boundaries.
But parents should think of timeouts as an opportunity to teach self-control and coping skills, not as a punishment.
Common timeout traps
When used correctly, timeouts don’t pose a problem. But if they’re applied inappropriately, they can actually create further power struggles, according to Gouze. The most common mistakes: Timeouts imposed too frequently, for too long, with too much negativity or with children who are too young.
Timeouts shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction, agrees Allen Simpson, spokesman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. They should end when a child calms down, and they should never make the child feel isolated or humiliated, according to the association.
And timeouts are simply not appropriate for all ages. They should not be used with infants or toddlers who are too young to fully understand right and wrong, Gouze says. Your 2-year-old is developmentally ready to benefit from a timeout when she can practice the concept during a calm period, she explains. But at that age, a timeout should last only about 30 seconds. Timeouts for 3- and 4-year-olds should last no more than three minutes, and even timeouts for kids 5 and up should end within five minutes, she recommends.
But if timeouts should only be a last resort, what else can parents do? Try these suggestions, compiled from interviews with Gouze, Margaret Silberman, a clinical child psychologist in Aurora, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children:
• Have realistic expectations. Your toddler isn’t trying to drive you crazy by throwing her sippy cup to the floor—she’s experimenting with gravity. Kids are born explorers, learning about the world by testing boundaries, both physical and behavioral. Learn what to expect at every developmental stage so you can offer appropriate guidance and minimize frustration.
• Create clear boundaries. All caregivers should consistently enforce family rules, from sleep routines to putting away toys. Maintain rules even in other contexts—toys must be put away while at play dates or when visiting grandma, for example—and be prepared to repeat yourself often.
• Offer positive alternatives to bad behavior. Redirection tends to be the easiest, most effective strategy for young kids. Your 2-year-old is hurling her blocks at the refrigerator. Annoying? Yes. An act of rebellion? Not necessarily. She’s likely just intrigued by the sound and possibly hoping for attention. Calmly say, "We don’t throw blocks," and remove them while introducing another activity.
• Use rewards. Timeouts provide an easy ultimatum. But rewards also motivate kids. And the dynamic is positive instead of negative. For kids age 3 and up, Silberman recommends using pennies, tokens or poker chips that can be "cashed in" for a trip to the park or an extra bedtime story. I tried the penny reward system with my 3-year-old son, and he was thrilled by the novelty of acquiring his own stash of coins he could use to buy extended story time. • Be a detective. Young kids often can’t verbalize the source of their frustration. So be a detective. Is your cranky child actually hungry? Overtired? Stir crazy from being inside? Pinpoint the real problem and address it directly.
• Praise good behavior. It’s easy to ignore kids when they’re playing quietly. But we pay attention when they misbehave. Reverse this cycle. Praise your child for positive behavior and remove your attention when he acts up.
• Use chill-outs. When you sense your child is becoming overwhelmed, step in and suggest a chill-out. Unlike a timeout, during a chill-out, the child is in control—she can go anywhere she wants, and she decides when it’s over. Well-timed, happy chill-outs can teach your child to calm herself before blowups occur. Sluzas tries to separate her kids and give them downtime to play quietly on their own when she can tell their sibling patience is starting to wear thin.
• Apply consequences that fit the crime. Your preschooler won’t put away her puzzles? Remove them and calmly let her know she won’t be able to play with them the rest of the day. Better yet, make the cleanup process a game you do together—and she may find that cleaning up is just as much fun as playing.
Your 3-year-old son slugs a playmate. Or your preschooler bites her brother while competing over the train set. Overstimulation or anxiety can quickly overwhelm kids, and misbehavior is a typical result, says Margaret Silberman, a clinical child psychologist at the Dreyer Medical Clinic in Aurora.
When adults have a crazy day at work, she explains, they can take a coffee break and walk away until they regain control. Kids occasionally need similar decompression time. An appropriate timeout provides a quiet space for a child to regroup.
If necessary, timeouts should be short, calmly explained and free of distractions. They should never demean or frighten.
Clinical psychologist Karen Gouze suggests letting your child pick her timeout spot in advance. It should be inherently boring—such as a chair or step. Bedrooms should remain positive environments; bathrooms can be hazardous. If your child won’t stay put, sit with her and calmly explain she’s in a timeout. Don’t engage in a dialogue. As soon as she’s calm, help her talk out her feelings, introduce a new activity and move on.
Paige Hobey is a writer and mother of two living in Chicago.
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