Do Time-Outs Work for Toddlers?
In the “Yes” Camp: Time-Outs Do Work for Toddlers
“Time-out gives the parent authority to correct undesirable behavior,” says Cristina Bingham, mother of three from El Cajon, California. “With fair warning, it takes the child away from all interaction and activities that entertain toddlers. For a temper tantrum, it provides an opportunity to vent. For an older toddler, it allows reflection. In general and over time, the toddler learns consequence will follow for certain kinds of behavior. (‘If I pour sand on her head, I will go to time-out.’)”
However, Bingham notes, it’s important to remember certain rules parents and caregivers should follow when administering a time-out. “Length of time is crucial when dealing with ages, and generally one minute per year works best,” she says. “For example, a 2-year-old should only spend two minutes in time-out. Time moves quite slowly for the toddler, and most parents will find a minute or two is sufficient. Also, never place a child in a ‘scary’ place for time-out, such as a darkened room or a closet. Remember to leave the door open when placed in a separate room. The goal is to correct, not frighten. Finally, avoid placing the toddler in his/her bedroom or crib; a toddler should associate these areas with good feelings rather than bad.”
As a mom, Bingham have found that time-outs work best when not over-used and administered with careful thought. “Also, I try to talk to my toddler when time-out is over,” she says. “This gives us both time to reflect over what has just happened and encourages verbal communication. Above all, I praise my kids. Nothing encourages positive behavior as praising children for the good things they do. And, in turn, this will help reduce the need for administering time-out.”
In the “No” Camp: Time-Outs Don’t Work for Toddlers
“One of the most challenging roles for parents is that of disciplinarian,” says Melissa Nixon, mother of three from Katy, Texas. “We are in a constant battle between our own frustration with our child’s behavior and a need to guide their behavior in a productive and positive way. Most parents agree that hitting or slapping a toddler does little, if anything, positive for either parent or child. We would find ourselves constantly slapping and hitting our children, so we have developed a method called ‘time-out’—but does this method work for toddlers?”
Nixon says her experience in giving her children time-outs as toddlers was very frustrating. “The toddler would get up and refuse to stay in time-out and, even with my trying every method to explain when asked why—he would not remember why,” she says. “When they got out of time-out they would return immediately to negative behavior. At the end, I found myself even more angry and frustrated than when I began.”
So what did she do? “I came to realize that the concept of time-out was too advanced for a toddler,” she says. “Their ability to sit still and think while remembering why they are in trouble had not developed. I wanted my child to keep their energy and curiosity alive, as they need this drive to grow. Their minds are racing to grasp all of the new stimuli in this magical world. How can you use this magical energy in your favor for the purpose of discipline? I found ‘redirection’ or changing their focus along with a lot of positive reinforcement goes a long way. For example, you discover your toddler coloring on the wall. Tell the toddler this makes Mommy sad and then immediately hand them paper; when they color on the paper, praise them each and every time. Another example: The toddler is climbing on the coffee table. Take the toddler down and find another activity that interests them and then encourage that behavior with positive reinforcement.”
Nixon notes that the toddler years are some of the most crucial years of early development. “Curiosity and experimentation are instinctive,” she says. “Toddlers are hard-wired to meddle, taste, break, and otherwise interact with their environment; yet, esoteric concepts of right and wrong are beyond their grasp. It is when children are toddling that you plant seeds of redirection. Then, when the children are older these seeds will sprout into an understanding of right and wrong, and only then does time-out bear results of changing behavior.
At every stage in life, it is always about redirection, says Nixon. “Time-out is redirection with some quiet time of reflection. ‘Grounding’ is redirection with a few ‘chores’ to allow time for the child to reconsider their behavior. It is not that time-out does not work, it’s that different stages of life require different forms of redirection, and for toddlers redirection should be more literal. Instead of taking the crayons away and isolating them, show them what they CAN do with the crayons.”
What Does the Expert Say?
“During the toddler years, time-out—when used selectively and properly—can be an effective, positive parenting tool,” says child behavior expert Elizabeth Pantley, author of
Hidden Messages: What Out Words and Actions Are Really Telling Our Children and The No-Cry Discipline Solution. “The key to using time-out with this age group is to first understand its purpose: to interrupt a child’s negative behavior with space, time and quiet, the purpose of which is to allow the child to calm down and then re-enter playtime in a more pleasant manner. Conversely, time-out when used as ‘punishment’ is rarely effective, and often escalates negative behavior on the part of the child (and on the part of the parent, who is attempting to keep an angry child sitting still in a chair). Time-out is much more valuable when used to teach self-control rather than when it is used to punish the lack of it.”
Pantley says time-out can be an excellent way to stop an out-of-control child in mid-action. “It is useful with toddlers for stopping tempter tantrums or physical violence—hitting, biting and so on,” she says. “It’s effective because it allows the parent to take control of the situation while still keeping in mind that angry, emotional toddlers need an adult’s help to gain control of their emotions. When used in this way a parent should be quick: catch the child in the act. Identify the action using short and simple phrases: ‘No hitting. Time-out.’ Then move the child away from the fray into a quiet place with instructions, ‘Sit here for a minute.’ You might even choose to sit with the child, as the purpose of the sitting is not punishment, but an opportunity to move away from the source of the problem, and gain self-control. The length of time the child sits doesn’t necessarily have to be a specific amount of minutes, but rather, can be just long enough to get the child out of the emotional situation and for the child to gain control of his behavior.”
Pantley, the mother of four, practices what she preaches. One day, when her then 22-month-old son, Coleton, was throwing rocks in their pond, which happened to be filled with a family of ducks, her simple request to “stop” was ignored. “An attempt to remove the rocks from his hand started a bit of tugging and foot stamping,” she says. “I’ll tell you that as an experienced parent educator and mother of four, I knew that Coleton’s intent was not to disobey me. I knew that he was simply following the whims of his curious, active toddler mind. I picked him up and carried him away from the pond. A few minutes of ‘time-out’ away from the ducks, and some discussion about the hardness of rocks versus the softness of ducks was enough to change his behavior. When we returned to the pond we talked about how the rocks could hurt the ducks. He tucked his little hands behind his back and together we watched the ducks swim.
Parents need to know that time-out is only a Band-Aid, says Pantley. “While it can succeed in putting a stop to a child’s aggressive or impulsive action, it does not teach a child what he should be doing instead. A young child will feel strong emotions that may result in hitting, biting, tantrums, yelling, or rock throwing. The emotions at the core of the action are real, and they won’t simply go away. It’s a parent’s job to help a child calm down, understand his feelings, and learn appropriate ways to deal with those feelings. So, after a time-out, once the child has calmed down, the parent can walk him back to the play area with a reminder, such as: ‘Remember, it’s not nice to hit. Play nicely now.’ The parent’s job doesn’t end there. A parent needs to stay nearby and watch for potential problems and step in early to help a child deal with strong feelings in an appropriate way, thus avoiding the need for frequent time-outs.”
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