Do Time-Outs Work for Toddlers?
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.”
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