By Dr Robert Needlman
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  • The most successful discipline often starts with looking at the world from your child’s point of view and trying to understand the meaning of the unacceptable, or ‘bad’, behaviour.
  • For example, a child who insists on running through the house might simply have so much physical energy that he cannot sit still. He needs a chance to burn off some energy outside (even on a cold, wet day!), not a time-out.

When parents ask about discipline, the first thing they mention is either smacking or time-out. Discipline really means teaching. You want your child to develop an internal sense of right and wrong – one that doesn't rely solely on the fear of being punished.

What is time-out?

Time-out involves having your child go to a place – a corner, chair or room – that is apart from interesting activities, and other people, for a short period of time.

Time-out is a very powerful, very effective way of teaching children what behaviours are unacceptable. The approach makes sense to children as young as two or three. They can understand that when they act in a way that is unacceptable, they temporarily lose the privilege of being around other people.

Time-out is non-hurtful and non-violent. Smacking and other hurtful punishments tend to bring out strong negative emotions in children – usually anger, shame and fear. When these negative emotions are strong enough, they take over the child’s thinking, leaving no room for the child to consider what he did wrong. Time-out is unpleasant enough to teach children a lesson, but it doesn’t overwhelm them with negative emotions that make real learning impossible.

Is time-out enough?
As important as time-out is, it cannot stand alone as the only form of discipline you use. It isn’t the only effective behaviour management technique. You also need to understand how to use praise and other rewards and effective listening.

Time-out is still basically a form of punishment. Punishment – even really effective, humane punishment, like time-out – can only teach children what not to do. It can’t teach them what to do. To learn what to do, children need to be rewarded, not punished. They need to receive praise, not just criticism.

Discipline works best when it focuses on rewards. For any unacceptable behaviour (say, hitting or biting), there is a corresponding acceptable and desirable behaviour (not hitting and not biting, but using words instead). The more you reward desirable behaviours, the less you have to punish undesirable ones, and (in general) the stronger your child’s internal sense of right and wrong grows.

Still, most parents find that they have to do some punishing. If your child is strong-willed, active and highly expressive of emotions, you probably need to turn to time-out more than other parents whose children are more easygoing.

It won’t take you long to become skilled at time-out.

Principles of time-out

Different experts favour different time-out techniques. Once you understand the principles, you can tailor the technique to fit your own style and needs.

Stay calm
Time-out means time away from your attention. Any attention, even negative attention, is a form of reward. So, the first principle of time-out (and all effective discipline) is to stay calm. If you lose your cool, you will be rewarding your child with very intense attention. Without meaning to, you will be increasing the likelihood that your child will repeat whatever negative behaviour upset you, rather than decreasing it.

Time-out is most effective when there is plenty of ‘time-in’
‘Time-in’ is plenty of happy, enjoyable time together. Making positive time happen can take real effort when a child has developed a pattern of negative behaviour. But the effort is very important. Without time-in, time-out becomes merely a version of business as usual. It loses its power.

Principle: Minimise attention during time-out
Time-out is time without attention. One way to minimise attention from you is to use a kitchen timer that ticks and has a loud bell. Set it up where your child can see it, and let your child know that she has to sit in time-out until the bell rings. If she gets up ahead of time, the timer gets reset.

The value of using a timer is that it takes you out of the equation. Pleading to you doesn’t do any good, because the timer is in charge.

For the same reason, avoid talking to your child during time-out or even looking at him very much. If possible, go about your business as if he weren’t there. If he makes enough of a racket or gets up out of time-out so that you can’t ignore him, make a point of resetting the time-out clock and telling him that the time-out starts once he is quiet.

Make time-outs short (one minute per year of age)
The whole point of time-out is to teach your child that a particular behaviour is unacceptable. A short time-out works as well as a long one.

About a minute per year of age for time-out is a good rule of thumb.

If the time-out is too long, the child forgets what it’s about and it ceases to teach her anything. The only thing that happens is that she feels angry and resentful. On the other hand, the more often a time-out occurs, and the more consistently it follows an unacceptable behaviour, the more the child learns from the time-out.

Let me give you an example of this. Your three-year-old is running through the house, screaming at the top of his lungs. You tell him to stop, but he is just too full of energy to listen to you. Sending him outside to run and scream isn’t an option, for whatever reason, so you decide your son needs a three-minute time-out. A couple of minutes after it’s over, he’s back to screaming. So you give him another time-out. Five minutes later, he’s screaming again. So he gets his third time-out.

The result of all this in and out of time-out is that you’ve given your son three opportunities to learn that screaming inside is not acceptable. If you’d given him a 15-minute time-out in the first place, he would have had only one opportunity to learn that particular lesson. After a few minutes, he might not even have remembered about the behaviour that got him there in the first place.

It’s important that when the time-out is over, it’s over. Instead of reminding your child again and again about the negative things she did, focus instead on the positive, pleasant things ahead. Not, ‘I'm glad you’ve finally stopped throwing things’. Instead try, ‘How about a story?’ or ‘What do you want to play with now?’

Don't threaten – act
Time-outs (and any punishments or rewards) are most effective when they follow immediately after the unacceptable behaviour. They also need to be predictable – that is, your child should know that any time he acts in certain unacceptable ways (refusing to do what you tell him to, for example), he is sure to be put in time-out. If it sometimes happens that he doesn’t get time-out – for example, if he is able to plead or argue his way out of it – then time-out becomes much less powerful.

This means that if you give one warning (‘Stop right now or you’re going to have a time-out’) and your child doesn’t stop, you have to give the time-out right away. If you threaten to give a time-out, then threaten again, and then again, you are teaching your child to ignore your threats. This is because you yourself are not taking them seriously and following through.

So remember: if you warn your child that she is headed for a time-out, be prepared to give one.

Time-outs are powerful, and they are simple. Once you understand the four principles talked about in this article (stay calm, minimise attention, make it short, take action), you can use this approach effectively.

Some time-out tips

Here are some additional tips to make your time-outs more effective. You might need them if your child is particularly strong willed.

Introduce time-out to your child
Here are some ideas for when you first introduce time-out:

  • Talk with your child about it in a positive way, at a time when she is not in trouble.
  • Set up a special chair, off in a corner, out of sight of the television but where you can keep an eye on your child.
  • If you are using a room for time-out, choose a boring but safe spot. You can use your child’s room, but it might not be effective as time-out if it has lots of toys and things to do in it.
  • Tell your child that the time-out space is a place to go to pull himself together when he’s upset and where he will need to sit for a couple of minutes if he breaks a family rule.
  • Show your child the timer, set it for two minutes, and let her do a ‘practice sit’ to see that time-out is not anything to be afraid of – it’s just boring.

Save time-out for serious offences
Save time-outs for fairly serious offences, such as breaking something in anger, or for times when your child is simply too wound up and needs to calm down. Instead of using time-outs for minor misbehaviours, such as small amounts of whining or little shows of anger, it’s better to say something like, ‘I don’t like it when you whine’. Use a serious face and tone of voice to convey that you mean business.

Make sure your child goes
If your young child refuses to go to time-out, let him know that he has a choice: he can walk on his own, or you will carry him there. One advantage of starting to use time-out when your child is quite small is that you can easily do just that. By the time he is too big to carry, he will be used to the time-out routine.

Keep putting your child back
If your child refuses to stay in time-out, bring her back to the time-out chair or room, reset the timer, and explain that she has to sit until the time is up. Don’t argue or make the mistake of hovering next to her to make sure she complies. All that attention is likely to make her repeat the behaviours that got her the time-out – which wasn’t truly time-out from your attention at all.

Have a back-up plan
Sometimes you need to have a back-up plan, particularly for a child who decides to test your resolve and repeatedly jumps up out of time-out. In some cases, holding the child in the time-out chair from behind (without talking or eye contact) works. In other cases, shutting the door of the time-out room works.

If these approaches leave you feeling unsure or concerned that your response might in some way be harmful to your child (a very reasonable concern, if your child resists with great effort!), it is time for you to find a behaviour management coach for yourself – either a behavioural paediatrician, psychologist, or other behaviour specialist who can give you personalised guidance.

When time-out doesn’t work

Parents often tell me, ‘Time-out just doesn’t work for my child’. (Most parents who manage to use time-out effectively usually don’t bother to mention it to the paediatrician.) I think that there certainly are some children who don’t take well to time-out. But it’s not as though other forms of discipline work much better for these children, either. These children demand from their parents a special level of behaviour management skill.

The temperamental traits that make the behaviour of some children in general more challenging – high levels of activity and intensity, high impulsiveness, persistence (which comes across as stubbornness), and relatively low sensitivity to rewards and punishments – make all forms of discipline less effective. Parents and teachers of these children often turn to harsher forms of punishment in the hope that yelling louder or spanking harder will work to correct the unacceptable behaviour. But these tactics almost always backfire, resulting in a child who is angry and resentful, or fearful, and even more badly behaved, at least when adults aren’t watching.

So, even though time-out doesn’t work as well for some children, it is still far and away the most effective form of punishment. Parents of children who have ‘difficult’ temperamental traits need to be even more skillful in the use of time-out and other non-hurtful discipline, whereas parents who are lucky enough to have easygoing children can get away with only a basic understanding of time-out. (For these children, almost anything works.)

If you find that time-outs are not working for your child, first look again at the principles and tips above. Then consider the following suggestions.

Look hard for positive behaviours
Children who appear to always behave badly often have learned that bad behaviour is a good way to get attention. In the seemingly rare moments when they are not misbehaving, their parents are too tired out to say anything or might be afraid to speak up in case it breaks the peaceful spell they are enjoying.

It’s especially important to pay attention to the positive (or the merely non-negative) things your child does. A good slogan is, ‘Catch ’em being good’. I encourage parents to comment on something positive that their child is doing at least 12 times an hour – about once every five minutes.

Usually I can manage to do this myself when I am seeing a child in my office, but it’s not always easy! What’s remarkable is that even the most badly behaved child will pause in his negative behaviours, at least momentarily, when he is praised for doing something positive.

Try to see the situation from your child's point of view
It’s much easier to know how to go about changing or controlling a behaviour if you understand why it exists in the first place. Sometimes, when a bad behaviour persists, even in the face of time-out and other punishments, it is because there is a strong reason behind it. The reason might be fear, anger or jealousy. In these cases, time-out and other punishment can help to reduce the behaviour, but real progress depends on your being able to help your child to work through whatever the issue is.

For example, if your older child seems irresistibly compelled to pinch her younger sibling, despite everything you say and all the time-outs in the world, it’s likely because the feeling of sibling jealousy is so strong that it overpowers everything else (including your child’s desire to please you and win your approval). Knowing this, you might take steps to increase the amount of ‘special time’ you share with your older child to reduce the intensity of the jealousy. This should allow the time-outs to be more effective.

Get help sooner rather than later
You’ll know when you’ve gotten a handle on your child’s behaviour, as opposed to still feeling confused and frustrated. If your child’s negative behaviour continues despite your best efforts, don’t let too much time go by without finding a strong coach who can support your effort in dealing with a difficult behavioural challenge.