Tuesday, January 11, 2011


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A "time-out" is a tricky discipline tool simply because just about everyone does it and everyone has an opinion on it. So to look around for an effective "time-out"strategy can be hard. Some people say one minute per age. Others say they stay until they are calm. Some say to have a time-out spot. Others say do it in their room. Some say to talk it out afterward while others say talking it out removes the lesson from the experience.

So it can get confusing. Let's see if we can bring some clarity to the situation. I will start with my policy, then discuss the policies found from different sources.

My Time-Out/Isolation Philosophy
I rarely use time-out or isolation. These are the times I use it:

Emotional Control
Child sets length of isolation

My number one reason for using a time-out is if the child is screaming and/or crying and needs some time to compose him/herself. I don't mean crying because the child got hurt or something--essentially crying in a tantrum sort of way. I have the child sit in our office or in his/her room. The child can come out on their own when they are done crying and ready to be happy--at least at the ages of 3.5 and 5.5.

Cooling Off Period
Parent sets length of isolation

Sometimes the child just needs to cool off. This often happens after some big stimulating event, like a family vacation or Christmas Day. If the child is getting worked up and upset at very small things, I have them go take some time in their room. They can play and really do whatever they want in most cases. Sometimes I instruct them to play on their bed (I do this if the child really needs a break). In these situations, they are to stay in the room until I come and get them.

Sibling Break
Parent sets length of isolation

If Brayden and Kaitlyn are not getting along, then they are to play in their rooms alone. They can play, but just not with each other. I do this for the remainder of time left before the next "event" in our daily routine is supposed to happen.

Parent sets length of isolation

This is rarely a reason I used a time-out for Brayden (5.5). If I do, it is only to remove him from the situation before the real punishment happens (my most common use of punishment is logical consequences).

It is used it more rarely for Kaitlyn (3.5). Kaitlyn does not mind being alone in the least, so it really isn't a punishment for her. Again, it might serve as a "holding place" for her before the punishment, but is not the punishment in and of itself.

I have used a time-out for McKenna (21 months) two times in her life. They have both been in the last two weeks. The first time, she hit Kaitlyn with a toy. Her intent was out of fun, but I wanted it clear to her that it was not okay. I put her in her crib for 2-3 minutes. She was very upset by this. I actually haven't had any sort of hitting from her since then (knock on wood).

A few days ago, I was doing her hair. I have her sit on the counter. She kept standing up. I told her to sit and stay seated, but she kept standing up. I don't ever move away from her, but I still find this to be a safety issue. She would not listen and I really had limited options. Not doing her hair would not be a punishment for her. She is young for a loss of privilege connection to work. Since she would not listen and since the time-out had worked well earlier, I moved on to that. Again, she was very upset. She cried for the full 3ish minutes she was in there. I got her out and immediately went back to the bathroom and sat her on the counter. She was a perfect angel and has been since.

On Becoming Babywise Book Two: Isolation for 10-12 month old
"Simply put, this means removing the child from an act or place of conflict and putting the child in his or her crib" (page 73). This book points out that the child will easily be able to note the cause and effect relationship between misbehaving and the isolation.

On Becoming Pre-Toddlerwise: Isolation for 12-18 month old
Again, isolation is defined as removing the child from an act or place of conflict (page 136).

You can use a crib, playpen, or high chair (when rolled to a quiet place). Something these three items have in common is that the child is not able to remove herself from the object, so anything you have where  you can safely put your pre-toddler and she can't get out of is suitable for isolation.

Also note that it is called isolation, which means alone. I will say, however, that I have heard from parents who simply turn the high chair around with the family present for the "isolation" and they report this works. So that might be an option for you, but for most children, alone will be a key factor.

On Becoming Toddlerwise: Isolation for 18-24 month--possibly up to 36 month
As the child gets older, the alone part of isolation really does become a more vital part of "isolation." A part of the punishment here is that the child is removed from social interaction. The child has done something that has led to her not being able to handle the privilege of social contact.

Most children in this age range have better self-control, so another room, a bed, or a chair might be suitable.

This is an age where isolation is common for the temper tantrums. The child can get out when the child is calm and happy (page 102).

On Becoming Preschoolwise: Isolation for 3 and 4 year old
This is the first book in the -wise series with more of a clear stance on what isolation is and isn't. Here are some guidelines (page 167):

  • Do not do one minute per age
  • Put your child somewhere alone
  • Tell your child that when he has calmed down and ready to be happy, you will come get him
  • Ask your child if he is ready to apologize. If not, isolation needs to continue
On Becoming Childwise: Isolation for 3-7 year old
"Isolation should be reserved for drawing attention to the more serious offenses" (page 216). A great point made in this book is that isolation can be "very effective when used appropriately--and ineffective when misused" (pages 216-217).

I will put only guidelines from babycenter.com that I agree with. They have claims like that a child won't be able to connect a time-out with the reason for the time out until the child is 2-3 years old, which I obviously disagree with. So here are points that I think are good (articles can be found here):
  • Look at isolation as an opportunity to change/modify behavior and/or cope with frustration. Since I am not big on using time-out as a punishment in most instances, I like this view of it. 
  • Keep the child isolated. Any attention from you--positive or negative--will reinforce the behavior. This is why a time-out in public just doesn't work. You can't leave a child alone in public, and interaction from you removes the negative side of a "time-out."
  • For children 12-24 months, you can try taking a "positive time-out" together. "Taking a time-out with you disrupts the spiral of negative behavior while avoiding the battle of wills that a more formal time-out can incite. It also painlessly introduces your child to the idea of a cooling-off period." This is also known as "redirection" to our Babywise moms.
  • Don't yell or be otherwise angry when putting your child in time-out (or any other time I would add)
  • Impose a Time-out swiftly--as in immediately
  • Do not put your child somewhere frightening
  • Decide ahead of time which actions you will use a time-out for
  • Be consistent. Do not do a time-out for hitting one day then nothing the next
This book has a very specific process dedicated to effective time-out. In fact, it is an entire chapter. If you really feel out of control and like time-out is a good answer for you, definitely refer to this book. Forehand and Long claim their process to be proven by research. They give appropriate locations, the proper sequence, time length, and what kind of interaction should be happening before, during, and after. It is a very simple, straight-forward process.

An important note from this book is to not have isolation as a discipline tool unless and until you are spending adequate time with your child each day. Another key point is to not lecture. They say a lecture often removes the learning that happened. You can say, "You are having a time out because you did X" but that is about it. They point out this is not the time for lectures. You can talk about it at another time when you are both more calm.

Love and Logic Magic book
This book also has some specific ideas for effective time-out (page 73):
  • The child stays in the room until the child is calm--then add one to two minutes
  • When you go get your child, say, "I love you. That was too bad you had to have a time-out." Remember, Love and Logic theory is all about the empathy.
  • Do not lecture the child

Parenting with Love and Logic bookThis is another book with a specific time-out process (pages 55-56):

  1. Say nicely, "uh-oh, looks like someone needs some alone time!" Quickly and gently take the child to the isolation spot--this is anywhere the child can be alone.
  2. Say nicely, "Feel free to have a fit. We will see you when  you are sweet."
  3. Give the child choices if apporopriate (would you like the door open or shut?)--I don't actually love this step in the process
  4. The child stays in the room until she is calm. Do not talk to the child at all during this time
  5. Once the child is calm, set the timer for 4-5 more minutes.
  6. If the child remained calm during these minutes, she can return to the family. Do not lecture about the problem. 

My General Guidelines

  • Only use it if it works
  • Don't worry about your child growing to hate the crib, highchair, bedroom, bed, lazy boy, etc. You child--yes, even a 10 month old--is smart enough to differentiate between bed time and isolation time.
  • Do not over-use a time out and do not turn to it first when there is conflict . Like the list from babycenter.com says, decide ahead of time what warrants a time-out. I have three distinct categories that use various forms of a "time-out." I also have one category that is vague (punishment). I basically use this for talking back, hitting, and complete defiance with no other options available to me
  • Be calm and remain calm
  • You might say something like, "I know you want that toy, but it is not okay to hit your sister. Because you hit her, you are having some alone time." This adds the element of you acknowledging that you know why your child did what she did, and that it is not okay.
I think as you look over these guidelines from various sources, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the exact process of how to complete a time-out is not necessarily what is important. There are people who subscribe to each of these methods. What is most important is the consistency of it. 

Review the methods and then decide which you think is the best fit for your child. Modify it as necessary. Think it out, plan it out, maybe even write it out. Have a plan. Then stick to that plan. Do review to ensure you are following the best idea, but beyond that, stay consistent. 



Stephanie said...

I'm so glad you posted this! I have been wondering lately if I use time-out too much. My 18 month old son has recently decided screaming when he is frustrated is the thing to do. Whether it's because he's in his high-chair waiting for food to be served, or he's in the carseat and doesn't want to be. When we're at home I gently tap his mouth and ask him to not scream, if he does again he will get a time-out. But now I'm thinking I might need to do something else because it's not really working. There are times he's even tried to hit my hand out of the way or hit me when I ask him to not scream. What do you suggest?

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Whitney said...

Thanks for posting this! I needed a refresher on time out.

Jessica said...

Great post. I have question about the lecture aspect of it, purely out of curiosity. Can you expand (or did your resources expand) on why they think lecturing or talking about it afterwards removes the lesson from the experience? That's interesting to me. I'm very talkative so I could see myself in the future over-explaining things to my children. In fact, I have already done this with some of my nieces when they were younger (primary school age) and I noticed that they would quickly lose interest in what I was saying, as if they lacked the ability to follow after a certain amount of time. (I kind of ramble!)

mrs. martin said...

I'm with Jessica, it did seem like everything listed said that there shouldn't be an explanation. As I am a talker as well, I don't really understand why the punishment shouldn't be explained? I'm not disagreeing, just not understanding :)

Michael and Yvonne said...

I'm with the prior 2 comments:) I've read Love and Logic and I kind of like that catchphrase and put them down for alone time until they are ready to be happy (in the version I read you can actually keep them in their room-the door open is not a choice). Anyways, they say just to move on. And I don't remember what Lehman says.
BUT BW talks about the need to apologize. I think there is a forgiveness/repetance/restoration process talked about in GKGW (not sure if i got that right-i haven't gotten that yet). So that seems contrary. What do you think?
What do your kids do?

Plowmanators said...

Stephanie, I would guess a big reason for his screaming is that he is able to think what he wants in his head but is at that age where they can't verbalize it yet. So I would work on some things to teach him to sign to communicate. Teach him to sign "please." Teach him to fold his arms and wait patiently. Also, be sure you don't put him in the high chair too early.

For the carseat, try bringing along distractions for him to take his mind off of hating the carseat. Try books on tape, music, snacks, toys, etc.

A time out is a logical thing to do when the child is screaming at the table. If you choose to do that, I would require him to sit nicely when he got back to the table and say "please" when he got back. Don't bring him back and hand him food right away. Model what you want him to do and help him to do it. Then praise him for speaking nicely.

Plowmanators said...

Thank you Allyson! How fun!

Plowmanators said...

Jessica, I think a big part of it is they all basically claim that the lecture removes the learning aspect. When you lecture, you can create a situation where the child turns his feelings of being sorry for what he did to being mad at you for putting him in time out. So a brief explanation is good so they know what is up, but too much turns the emotions outward instead of inward.

Plowmanators said...

Jessica and Mrs. Martin, I would add that sometimes I do spend time talking with the child--but that really only happens with Brayden and it is rare. And I don't lecture, I talk about the morals behind the actions. So I wouldn't go so far as to say a discussion sometimes is absolutely a no.

Just think of you when you mess up. You know you messed up. How would someone in charge of you lecturing you make you feel?

Plowmanators said...

Michael and Yvonne, I don't think the child apologizing is the same as a parent lecturing. I think having the child apologize for what he did, asking forgiveness, and the parent accepting it actually lends itself to agreeing with the "no lecture" idea. You can't accept the apology of someone and lecture them at the same time. That is not accepting :)

A great idea is to choose a time of non-conflict to go into further info and further training on the issue at hand.

Jes said...

So i think this time out is a great idea.. but then what happens at meal time when my daughter chooses not to eat? It can be her favourite meal and she chooses to hold it in her mouth... for what seems like forever some times... VERY FRUSTRATING for mommy!! We have done the timer thing... which kinda works... and then she has to eat the rest next time... but yesterday she held her last bite in her mouth for almost an hour ( we have had longer... ) timer went... i took away her plate of food... and she sat there... and kept it in her mouth... everyone was gone from the table. Her brother was having a bath which she wanted too also... but that wouldnt push her to a point of swallowing... then what??

Plowmanators said...


Are you telling her to take one more bite and she just holds it in her mouth? Or is it just her last bite and she isn't swallowing? If she just isn't swallowing, I would just have her spit it out when mealtime is over. Some people just hold food in their mouth for a long time, but will outgrow that.

If it is her way of defying you, then it isn't just about meals. This will be popping up throughout your day. I personally would not turn mealtime into your battle ground. Get to the root of the obedience issue (see posts on "freedoms").


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