Q.  My husband and I have two sons (18 months and 4 years). They are a handful. One of my friends suggested using time outs, but I’ve heard they don’t work. Is my toddler too young for time outs, and do you think they work?

A.  Some people believe time outs don’t work because the technique is used as punishment, creating shame in the child. Sometimes, the time out chair has even been called the “ugly chair.” The child interprets this to mean he is bad. And some people continue talking to the child and giving warnings during the time out. These behaviors give the child attention, which may be exactly what he is wanting when he breaks rules, throws tantrums or won’t cooperate.

Time out should provide a chance alone for self-calming. Time outs can start as young as 15 months old. And while some experts say that 7 years old is the limit for time outs, some schools and parents use them through the teen years. A grade school librarian shared with me that she uses time outs on occasion. A high school teacher I know uses time outs but doesn’t call them that. She sends the teen to the hall to get a drink of water and calm down.

Here are some suggestions to make time outs work:

  1. Set rules for behavior. If your child breaks a rule, ask her, “What is our rule about throwing toys?” Then she can connect the time out with the behavior.
  2. Withdraw your attention. Don’t give warnings or interact with the child during the time out.
  3. A good rule of thumb is one minute of time out for each year of the child’s age. Since all kids are different, you can adjust this up or down as needed.
  4. Consider using a time out chair and a timer your child can watch. There are even chairs that have built-in timers. But these are optional. Sometimes just withdrawing your attention for a short time works well.
  5. If you do use a chair, don’t name it negatively. A positive name like the “calming chair” or the “chair for thinking” is better. You can also buy decals for a time out chair. One I like says, “Time out to think about the things you do, but always remember: I love you.”
  6. As soon as the child composes himself, move him on to an activity.
  7. For a child who likes to play alone, time out can seem like a reward. Be sure to put the child where she can see something she wants to be involved in. This motivates the child to calm herself and think about her behavior.
  8. Be aware of your child’s developmental abilities. For example, an 18-month-old doesn’t yet understand how to share, so he shouldn’t get a time out for not sharing.
  9. If you do use time outs, you must also use “time ins.” These are positive, loving activities you do together, like reading a story, making popcorn, taking a walk or playing games. Children begin to associate good behavior with “time in” activities.

A well-done time out can work. If you’re still having trouble, a therapist can suggest changes to the time out or offer other techniques for getting a child to comply with rules and expectations.

Dr. Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.

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