Episode 18: How to use Timeouts Effectively
When working with a child who is engaging in problematic/disruptive behaviors, we generally need some way of helping them learn which behaviors they should not engage in. While we generally suggest focusing on telling a child what to do, rather than what not to do, some form of discipline is often needed. A common recommendation is to use timeouts, but many parents have tried timeouts without success. To help improve the effectiveness of timeouts, there are a few things to keep in mind.
To start out, it's important to make it very clear to your child what behavior(s) will result in a timeout. Try to keep the behaviors limited so they are easy to remember. For example, start with one "house rule" such as "no kicking." It's a straightforward rule that is very clear (there's little room for a child to argue that they didn't kick someone). If rules are too vague, kids will have a hard time understanding them, and they may feel like they get timeouts unfairly and randomly.
Too many rules also can be confusing for kids. When enforcing "house rules" that lead to a timeout, start with one and work up to no more than three at a time. As behaviors improve and the problematic behaviors happen less often, you can switch out a house rule.
Once a "house rule" is in place, it should be enforced every time a behavior is noticed. What can sometimes happen is "escalation," where a child increases the undesired behavior for a time after timeouts are started. This is normal, and not a sign that the timeouts aren't working. Continue to use them consistently, and the frequency should start to go down.
Timeouts need to vary somewhat as a child ages. For example, a decent rule of thumb is to make a timeout last one minute for however old the child is at the time (e.g., a timeout for a 6-year-old would be 6 minutes long). Sitting in a chair should be sufficient, though a "timeout room" can be used if a child refuses to stay seated in the chair (though this can be tricky, so consider working with a therapist if you run into this scenario).
You may also want to consider requiring a child to sit quietly for a certain amount of time (maybe 15-30 seconds) prior to them getting out of the chair. If the time is up, and they are still acting out in some way, then keep the time going until there is that 15-30 seconds of appropriate behavior.
A lot of parents threaten to use something like a timeout without actually following through. Children learn this quickly and will call your bluff if you do so. Giving a warning about a timeout should be limited to only when it's necessary, but then the timeout should actually occur if a warning was given and the behavior did not improve. Timeouts can even be done outside the home if necessary; the closer they occur in time to the undesired behavior, the more effective they are likely to be.
In addition, require the appropriate behavior after the timeout is complete. For example, if a child is non-compliant with cleaning up their toys and gets a timeout, then ask them to clean up their toys after the timeout is over. If they refuse, another timeout can be used. Timeouts should not be a way for a child to get out of doing something.
Hopefully these are helpful guidelines for timeouts. But again, timeouts should not be the first choice for improving child behavior. Rewarding desired behaviors is generally more effective, and leads to fewer conflicts between parent and child. But if a timeout is needed, try to follow the above suggestions. They should help to increase the effectiveness of timeouts, reducing your need for using them.
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