How effective are "time outs"? Our son is entering toddlerhood and I’m not sure what type of discipline is best for different behaviours. My friends all seem to rely on "time outs" regardless of the nature of their kids’ behaviour. I’m not sure this is always the best method. When are "time outs" an appropriate means of discipline? When are they not? How can I tell the difference?

As a general rule, time outs aren’t meant to function as a method of punishment. Instead, they’re a way of allowing the child’s reasoning powers to catch up with his emotions. The main idea is to communicate, teach, and encourage reflection.

Exactly what happens when you give a misbehaving child a “time out”? You simply pull him out of the action and tell him to cool his heels for a while in a quiet, isolated setting. In this way, you force him to stop, take a deep breath, and think about what he’s been doing. You give him a chance to spend some time trying to understand the reasons behind the household rules. That’s why it’s best to make sure he knows beforehand what those rules are. He should also understand clearly what the consequences are likely to be if he chooses to break them. (By the way, parents can model this kind of self-examination for their kids by taking voluntary time outs themselves whenever they feel that anger or impatience may be getting the better of them.)

All this implies that time outs are most effective in dealing with thoughtless and impulsive behaviour. Examples include angry outbursts or a temporary loss of self-control. Time outs are far less helpful in cases of premeditated defiance. We’re talking here about conscious and deliberate disobedience. Misbehaviour of that sort has deeper roots. It needs to be confronted with more serious consequences. We’d suggest something like loss of privileges, grounding or seeking professional help. You should also resist the temptation to put your child in a time out simply because he’s bugging you or making annoying noises.

The rule of thumb is one minute of time out for every year of a child’s age: three minutes for a 3 year old, four minutes for a 4 year old, and so on. As you can see, this guideline is directly related to the time out’s function as an opportunity for reflection. It takes into account the child’s maturity and capacity for rational thought. It should be only as long as it needs to be in order to give him a chance to take in the bigger picture.

With younger kids, it can be helpful to prepare an “Emotions Tool-Box” as an aid to meaningful reflection. Inside a decorated shoe box place a few carefully selected items. Choose these items with an eye to their special symbolic significance. For example, a magnifying glass (“Do I need to take a closer look at this situation?”), a lump of clay or Play-Doh (“Am I flexible?”), or a squeeze toy (“Do I need to find healthier ways of working out my frustrations?”). Let the child handle these items. Encourage him to think about what they mean while he’s in timeout. It’s best to let him do this in a “boring” location. We’d recommend the stairs or the bathroom or laundry room. His own bedroom is probably well stocked with distracting toys and games.

That leads to one last thought. The effectiveness of a time out may sometimes be related to your child’s personality type. This method tends to work best with outgoing kids. Children of a quieter and more withdrawn disposition may actually enjoy being sent off by themselves for five or ten minutes. In that case, it would be wise to come up with some other way of correcting their impulsive behaviours.

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