One of the most common complaints/questions I get during well-child checks is, “How do I handle my child’s bad behavior?” or “How do I get my child to stop…?” Timeout is a highly effective method of discipline. The goal of disciplining a child should be to teach a child, to reinforce his or her internal sense of right and wrong. In order for timeout to be most effective, you must prepare appropriately ahead of time. Here are the tips to help BEFORE you implement timeouts, or if timeouts aren’t working well for you.
1. Know what behaviors warrant a timeout.
- Not following parental instruction. Children need to take you seriously. If you instruct your child to do something and they do not, then give ONE warning. For example, “If you do not…like I asked, you will have to go to timeout.” If your child doesn’t then do what you asked, send him or her to timeout. Do not ask your child to do something you are not willing to follow through on.
- Unacceptable behaviors. Decide what is unacceptable (e.g., hitting, biting, temper tantrums). Make sure both parents and any regular caregivers are consistent in disciplining unacceptable behaviors. You must be consistent in order to send your child the right message, e.g. ‘any time I hit I will end up in timeout.’
- Dangerous behaviors. I do not give warnings for dangerous behaviors. When safety is on the line, a child needs to know you mean business.
2. Choose the timeout location.
- A chair or a step often works best. I do not like locations that serve a secondary purpose (e.g. a highchair, bed, etc.). There should be no confusion about what happens in the timeout location.
- Away from distractions. The child needs to be removed from anything of interest: toys, T.V., radios, people, windows, etc. Timeout needs to be boring. A child’s bedroom is not a good location because of the toys and things to do.
- Safe and not scary. The location should not have breakable objects near by or ways in which a child can get hurt. Since you will not be watching the child (i.e. you will leave and ignore the child) and the child may be upset or crying, make sure the child cannot get hurt. If the location is in a separate room, keep on the lights. The location should only be boring not scary.
3. Explain the procedure to the child ahead of time.
- Tell the child at a level they can understand. Be brief in explaining how and why you will use timeout.
- Explain the rules. Rule one: The child must be quiet. Time doesn’t start until the child is under control. The amount of time is usually one minute per year old. Rule two: The child must stay on the chair until the parent comes and gets the child out. Reinforce understanding by having your child repeat the rules. Keep in mind that a toddler may not comprehend the rules and will learn over time as you use timeout. I also modify rule one in the very young (18 mo-2 years). Initially that young age group doesn’t understand the rule of being quiet before starting counting time and tends to just cry when put in timeout. I prefer to send the message of ‘you must be quiet and in control’ by having a parent seize the moment of when a child stops crying to get him or her out of timeout. If it has only been 30 seconds, so be it. I’d rather the child get the reinforced message, ‘I get to come out when I stop crying or I am quiet’ than ‘I have to sit here for exactly one and a half minutes.’
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