Your four year old is jumping on the sofa. “Stop jumping on the sofa,” you say, as you haul a bucket of laundry up the stairs. You return to find Junior still jumping. “Knock it off, or you’re going to time out,” you say. Junior doesn’t stop. In fact, he shouts, “No, no, no,” as he continues jumping. “That’s enough!” you shout back. “Go to time out!”
And as your child kicks and screams his way to time out, you’re left with the distinct feeling that you’ve just lost this round. You’re right, says Dr. Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. In fact, she says, the biggest mistake parents make is “not following through with ‘That’s time out.’ Parents give second chances,” she says. Kids quickly figure out that we’re not serious, rendering the time out useless.
So can a time out ever be effective? Absolutely, says Dr. Borba. When either the child or the parent or both need a cooling off period, time out is the way to go. “Time out is most effective in reducing aggressive or annoying behaviors such as tantrums, hitting, aggression, name-calling, whining, interrupting, or directly disobeying an adult,” she explains, and adds that it works best for kids ages three to ten.
Dr. Borba recommends immediately removing the child to a designated spot in a safe, well-lit area. The child should be isolated so he doesn’t receive attention from others, and he shouldn’t have access to distractions such as games, toys, pets, food, or anything else.
Set an appropriate time, and communicate it to your child. “The easiest guideline is one minute for each year of the child’s age (three years equals three minutes, six years equals six minutes, and so on) — but keep in mind that this is the minimum amount of time,” says Dr. Borba. A more severe infraction can warrant a longer time out. Set a timer (the microwave clock works well), and don’t let your child out early.
Once you put a child in time out, you must enforce it, stresses Dr. Borba. “The child is not allowed to leave time out until he behaves appropriately: sitting quietly to the best of his ability and remaining for the stipulated time. If he doesn’t comply, add an extra minute of time out from the moment he acts right. For instance, if he’s been misbehaving in time out for ten minutes then finally sits quietly, add one more minute for his perfect behavior, and then let him out.”
Remember, too, that the purpose of the time out is for your child to think for himself. So your job is to ignore him completely. “Any interaction with your child will only reinforce whatever misbehavior he is displaying,” Dr. Borba cautions.
“One of the biggest reasons kids continue using the same misbehavior is that they don’t know another way to behave,” explains Dr. Borba. So after the time out, “ask your child to describe what she did wrong and what she will do differently next time.” Some children will need prompting or guiding to answer. Make sure your child understands exactly what you want. And finally, says Dr. Borba, “forgive, forget, and move on!