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Early Childhood Time Outs

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Another discipline technique that can be effective with young children and that can help preserve parents' sanity is the time-out. Time outs are brief periods of time during which young children must leave an activity or group of people in order to calm down. Time-outs are often prescribed when children are having an emotional melt-down and need space to gather themselves back together. Time-outs are useful for managing crying, tantruming or similarly emotional and disruptive behaviors.

clockTo use time-outs effectively, parents should identify a time-out place in their home and in other places children frequent (such as Aunt Jill's house). Ideal time-out locations can be visually monitored by parents, but exclude children from participating in the center of activity. The time out area is typically a certain chair or a spot in the corner of the room.

Beyond where kids take a time out, it's also important to plan how long time-outs will last. Sending young child to a time-out place or to their bedrooms for long periods of time to, "think about what they have done," is not effective (because kids can't easily relate to extended periods of time) and may actually exacerbate the problem. Shorter time-out periods are generally more effective than longer ones. A good guideline is that children receive one minute of time out for every year of their age. So, a 5 year old receives a five-minute time out, and a 3 year old receives a 3 minute time out. Parents should invest in an egg timer and use it for time-outs, so that children can visually see the time moving by (which will help them maintain self-control). It's important for children to learn that the timer doesn't begin until they are calm and quiet in the time-out space. The more they struggle, the longer they remain in time-out.

It's parents' job to stay calm and firm in order to direct young children to the time out place, and to communicate their expectations to children during the process of giving a time-out in order for the technique to be consistently effective. When a child is having a tantrum, parents should calmly but firmly communicate that the child needs to go to time-out in order to calm down. When children are preschool age, it is appropriate for parents to physically pick them up and place them in the time out space.

At this early stage of a child's outburst, parents are often tempted to give a long, drawn-out lecture while the child continues screaming from his seat. This is not a helpful strategy for restoring calm and, once again, may actually worsen the child's screaming and crying because the child will try to benefit from the negative attention he is receiving. Instead, parents should just firmly and calmly state what behavior the child needs to do, how the child's behavior is affecting others, that they need to go to time out for X number of minutes, and that the timer will begin when the child starts sitting calmly.

For example, if because of a disagreement over sharing toys with his brother, Jayden starts crying, screaming, and whining, Mom should use a time out. She could say, "Jayden, you need to share your toys nicely with your brother. It's hurtful to take toys out of your brother's hand. You need to go to time out for 4 minutes. The timer will start when you can sit your bottom on the chair quietly and you use a voice that Mommy can understand," while she carries him to his time-out spot.

If Jayden continues to scream and to cry, Mom should avoid feeding into this display. Instead, Mom should pretend to ignore Jayden's crying. At most, Mom might calmly and quietly remind Jayden, "Your timer will start when you can sit calmly." Eventually the child will realize that nothing good is coming out of screaming in a chair with no one watching, and the child will pull it together so he can go back to the fun. If other children are in the area and giving the child in time-out negative attention, the parent should just remove those other children from the situation, such as by herding them towards another activity in another room.