Do Time-Outs Work for Toddlers?
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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