Try These Timeout Techniques
Question: Our 6-year-old is all boy, and there are times when he steps over the line. We like the idea of sending him to timeout when he has misbehaved, but he simply won’t stay in a timeout. What should we do?
Answer: Your situation is common. Timeout is a reasonable form of discipline, but is not the only good option. We will discuss the goals of discipline to help you apply our guidance to your particular child.
This question is not as obvious as it might first seem. There are actually two different uses of discipline. The first is to use discipline for the purpose of setting limits. Limit setting is appropriate when children misbehave either because they do not understand the rules or are not yet capable of behaving appropriately. Under those circumstances, parents should support, guide, and comfort as they provide expectations and boundaries. Timeout can be used as a cool down, not as a punishment.
At the age of 6, a child who does not face special developmental or emotional issues is fully capable of understanding and behaving appropriately. Discipline is designed to provide consequences for behavior a child understands is inappropriate and can control with effort. Consequences primarily enable parents to provide a clear message about their family’s values and support their child’s moral sense. Secondarily, and in our view less importantly, parents provide their child with a tangible motivation to behave, because he or she anticipates unpleasant consequences for future misbehavior.
Timeout as a consequence
There are some important general principles for using consequences for misbehavior:
The consequence should be unpleasant enough to make the point, but no more. In the case of timeouts, five minutes may be a good amount. Thirty minutes would probably be too long.
Shaming or physical punishment has no place.
Parents should be able to administer the consequence simply and cleanly. Taking away 15 minutes of computer time is completely within your control. Having to threaten, restrain, chase or otherwise interact with a child who resists timeout is an indicator that the parent is unable to administer the consequence simply.
Do not try to make consequences more or different from what they are. For example, we have rarely met the child who truly goes to the timeout area and ponders how he or she could do better next time! Asking a child to do something that he or she is incapable of accomplishing runs the risk of instilling a sense of failure in that child. Success is more likely if you straightforwardly announce a child is going to the timeout area so that he can’t do anything for a while. You are withdrawing his right to participate in activities, not sending him to think.
Why does a child fight timeout?
Some children actually enjoy a little time with themselves. Others hate it for some reason. In both cases, timeout is not meeting the goal of causing the desired amount of displeasure. Some children react to timeout spaces as if they have been banished and become painfully anxious, particularly if they have been sent to another part of the house. Other children feel so bad about having misbehaved that they have difficulty tolerating the consequence, and timeout provides a ready opportunity to resist. Others enjoy the pleasure of “turning the tables,” after their parent has exerted control over them. Providing a timeout space in visual site of the parents might help the child who is sensitive to being isolated, although parents would need to be careful that it remains a punishment! Timeout should not become talk-with-me-while-I-sit-in-a-special-place time when it is being used as a consequence.
Some discipline options
The best consequence is one that takes place within the parent-child relationship. Expressing disappointment and disapproval in a direct and respectful way should always be part of the provision of a consequence. There are many sensitive children for whom parental disapproval provides sufficient displeasure, and further consequences are unnecessary or even too much. Discipline for these children best remains completely within the parent-child relationship.
For those children for whom consequences are in order, restriction of an activity that they enjoy, such as time at a video or computer screen, is an ideal punishment. We do not recommend taking away part of the bedtime ritual or food because of their importance in providing basic security to a child. We also do not recommend taking away privileges with friends, such as a play date at this age, because your child needs your support as he develops social abilities and confidence. In a few years, it would be fine to use time with friends as a consequence.
Timeout is a kindly way to administer a consequence and has some portability (timeout at Grandma’s house). When timeout becomes a battle of wills or causes excessive upset for a child, parents should use other consequences that require the child’s cooperation.
Timeout is just one very reasonable technique for providing consequences, but there are many others that might be just the one for your son.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood is a nonprofit agency that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. The question may be a composite or illustration of parents’ questions.