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Reality Check: When Time-Outs Don't Work

Q. My 3-year-old won't stay in her room when I put her there for a time-out. What should I do?

A.
A time-out is the enlightened alternative to spanking. But when your child refuses to go quietly (or even noisily) to her room, you're faced with the problem of enforcing the time-out without using force. Is it still a pacifist method of discipline if you have to pick her up kicking and screaming, throw her into her room, and hold the door shut so she can't escape? Not really, and it defeats the purpose of time-outs, which is to de-escalate tempers.

To peacefully yet firmly discipline your child:

  • Save a time-out for a big offense. Explain that it will be the consequence of hitting, biting, or any other aggressive behavior. For minor offenses, use natural consequences: If she colors on the table instead of the paper, put away the markers, hand her a sponge, and have her clean it up.

     

  • Call it something else. Some options: quiet time, calm-down time, punch-a-pillow time, or Suzy time. That way, you remove the negative hype associated with the term that even 3-year-olds have gotten wind of. In your child's mind, a time-out is something to rebel against.

     

  • Do it somewhere else. Try the bottom step of the staircase or the stool in the corner of the kitchen. You can even give your little offender her choice of location so she feels as if she has some say in her punishment.

     

  • Make it short. A minute for each year of age (three minutes for your daughter) is the accepted length of a time-out period. Any longer, and she won't even remember what she's there for. If she comes out in less time but is calm, let her stay, and compliment her on collecting herself so quickly. (Even prison wardens knock off time for good behavior.) If she emerges while she's still worked up, coolly walk her back, telling her that you'll let her know when the three minutes are up. Repeat as monotonously and often as needed (don't give her a scene). But hang it up after three minutes -- sometimes you just have to call it a draw.

    Trisha Thompson is a contributing editor to PARENTING magazine and a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk.

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