Positive discipline: How to use Time Out effectively

 In Anger management, Discipline, Fighting

Little boy in Time OutAs a Mother, I occasionally used Time Out with my children to give them time to calm down. When my children were younger they used to spend Time Out in the downstairs cloakroom, and I was surprised one day to find a stash of comics under the rug!  At least one of my children was preparing to misbehave and had sorted out their entertainment when they were put into Time Out. (Nowadays I would sit my child in a place where I could see them –well, you live and learn).

Now my children are older I no longer use Time Out, as this method is most suitable for children aged between about two and eight. Older children can learn to manage their own anger and frustrations and take themselves off to calm down when they recognise things are getting out of control.

Time out is a sensitive issue with parents, as everyone has a different opinion on how it should be used. For my children I used it as a last resort, generally for when they had hurt another child or kept refusing to do what they were asked. I noticed that their behaviour often worsened at the end of a long term, when they were tired.  I think we’ve all had those moments when we feel a bit embarrassed that our children seem to have forgotten how to behave. Often just one or two ‘Time Outs’ reminded them, and they would start behaving again. However unless it is used wisely, it is just another punishment, and children may not learn the value of taking time away from a situation to calm down.

Although some parenting experts talk about a ‘naughty chair’ or ‘naughty step’, it can label the child as ‘naughty’ and can lead children to feel that they are naughty. As we know, if children are labelled they often behave to live up to that label, in the same way as they live up to the labels of ‘shy, loud, silly or messy’. So it is better to use the term ‘Calming-down area’ ‘chill-out zone’ ‘thinking chair’ or even just ‘quiet time on the sofa’.

So as a parent how do you use Time Out?

In a nutshell, Time Out is where a child goes to calm down when they have been aggressive or not done as they have been asked. The length of time they are in Time Out is usually one minute for each year, so a four-year-old would go for four minutes.

Some parents like to have a little chat afterwards to check that the child understands why they needed Time Out, and some ask for an apology.

As a parent, using Time Out allows us to stay in control of our own behaviour. We can stay calm and polite. We don’t need to raise our voice or lose our temper. In fact it is really important that we don’t get angry or explode suddenly. We can talk in a normal voice and help our children see that it is possible to stay in control of how we behave. We should not use Time Out as a punishment. It is what it says on the box – time to think and calm down. This is a method to help our child calm down or to learn from a mistake. We can also use the time to calm ourselves down.

Before starting to use this method, it is important to explain it to the child. Let them know what behaviour will lead to Time Out and that (apart from hurting someone), they will be given the choice to stop and behave. Tell them how long it will be, what will signal the end of the time and what they will need to do at the end (such as explaining what they should have done, or saying sorry). Explain that the timer will only start when they are compliant, and that if they come off the chair or mat, before the signal that the timer will be re-started. Tell them that you will not be talking with them during Time Out, and will ask others to ignore them.

If a child is aggressive then they should immediately be taken to ‘Time Out’. (I like the saying ‘You hit. You sit!’). However if a child refuses to do something, or starts misbehaving they should be given a warning: ‘Please do what I asked / stop that. Or you will need some Time Out’. If they continue they are told: ‘This is your final warning, if you carry on you will need some Time Out’. This gives the child the choice. At this point we can count to three.

If they continue then we guide them to the area of the room that is designated as the ‘thinking chair’ or ‘Time Out mat’. An older child can be given the choice ‘You can go into Time Out like a big girl / boy or I can take you.’ Explain how long they will need to stay there. when they are sitting quietly we can set a timer that they can see, or maybe shake a ‘chill-out bottle’ with coloured water and sparkly items that need to settle to the bottom to mark the end of the Time Out period. Then the child should be ignored.

The timer should be re-set if the child moves off the chair or on the mat. Be prepared for testing, especially the first few times you use this method. If they repeatedly get down they may need to be removed to another room with the door open. If they still won’t stay in Time Out then the door between you and the child may need to be shut.  Still refusing to stay may warrant removing privileges such as TV, Computer, pocket money or an earlier bedtime – whatever it takes for the child to realise that you are in charge. The important thing is that nothing else happens until the Time Out is completed.

We must not threaten ‘Time Out’ if we are not prepared to follow through, and we need to be consistent about doing it every time we notice the behaviour we are tackling. So often we feel tired or distracted and would love to turn a blind eye. But this confuses our children, and they start to think that what we do depends on our mood rather than their behaviour. Often just a few ‘Time Outs’ will help our children realise we are serious. We also need to use it when we are out, and to support our partner when they use Time Out. Consistency is the key.

When the timer rings we should ask our child what they did to get Time Out and what they will do next time the situation arises. If the child was refusing to do something then they should end Time Out by doing what we originally asked. If they made a mess then it should be cleared up. If they hurt someone then they should apologise (and maybe do something nice for that person). Until we feel that the child has learned from their mistake the Time Out is not complete. A begrudging but correct answer may suffice, but if our child refuses to answer us or make up for their mistake they should remain in Time Out until we feel that the lesson was learned. When we are happy that they have ‘done their time’ we can end the episode with ‘Do you want a hug?’ which helps our child to know that we still love them, even when we need to teach them how to behave.

After the Time Out has been completed, it is finished.  It is really important not refer to the misbehaviour again and be really watchful for any positive behaviour we can mention. Our children need to know how to get our praise and recognition for their good behaviour. And they need to know that completing Time Out is the natural consequence to help them learn from mistakes. At no time should they feel we have withdrawn our love and support.

Later, when things have calmed down, it may be good to spend some time problem-solving with your child to help them work out ways of dealing with the situation next time, and help them learn new ways of coping. This should be done in the spirit of finding solutions not dragging up poor behaviour.

It is also important for our children to see us using ‘Time Out’ ourselves to wind down, relax and re-charge our batteries. The more we model how we can use Time Out to calm ourselves down and care for ourselves the more our children will understand how to use this method to manage their own anger and frustrations as they grow older.

One last note, a Mum on one of my courses told me that say that this technique has transformed her seven-year-old son’s behaviour within a week of starting to use it. Constant arguments and battles have been replaced with a close, loving relationship, which she finds hard to believe. Her son refused to clean up the mess made by his muddy football boots. It took 35 minutes before he completed the Time Out and for him to realise that she was serious. Now if he starts to misbehave she just mentions ‘Time Out’ and he knows not to test the boundary. Her biggest surprise was that by staying in control and not raising her voice, her relationship with her son changed completely. Since starting to use Time Out they have had more close times and cuddles than she can remember.

I would love to know any success stories you have had with ‘Time Out’ or what the ‘Chill out zone’ is called in your home. Please let me know in the box below.

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