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“I tried ‘Time-Out’ and it doesn’t work!”

Text Box:  As indicated above, the term “Time-Out” is an abbreviation and originates from the longer phrase “Time-Out from reinforcement.”  As such, there are many ways to conduct a “Time-Out.”  For example, all of the following are versions of “Time-Out”: putting a 3-year old in a chair for 3 minutes, “grounding” a 15-year old for 1 week, and putting an adult in prison for 10 years. There are several different ways to conduct a “Time-out” with a young child.  Ideally, you place your child in a chair or safe area, he complies, and then remains seated for the duration you choose.  That’s ideal, but highly improbable because most “spirited” young children will actively resist and leave your “Time-out” area to rebel against your effort to impose control.  More realistically (and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics), you may need to hold or place your child in a safe and familiar, but confined area for Time-out (e.g., a “port-a-crib”, a booster-seat, a car-seat, a safe highchair, a room where there is not opportunity for positive reinforcement, etc.). 

Of course, it is important to make every effort to help your child learn from the incident.  At the end of the Time-Out, return to your child and either help your child play appropriately, or (if your child is old enough), discuss what happened and consider alternative ways to deal with the situation for next time.

Parents often say, “I don’t want to over-use Time-Out because then it will lose it’s effectiveness.”  This is a common and fair point, but it also must be noted that if you “under-use” or inconsistently use “Time-Out” it will also be ineffective.  Very often parents implement “Time-Out” only a few times or only in response to the most severe behavioral violations, and then (erroneously) conclude, “I tried Time-Out and it doesn’t work.”  First, it is important to use a version of Time-out where you remain in control of yourself and the situation.  Second, it is crucial to remember the 4 rules that make “Time-Out” (or any punishment for that matter) effective.  Specifically, the “Time-Out” should be (1) Humane (obviously),  (2) Powerful (e.g., a 15-second time-out for a 5 year-old is much less powerful than a 5-minute Time-Out), (3) Immediate (e.g., don’t use time-out a long time after the negative behavior occurs), and (4) Consistent (e.g., the definition of “consistent” is “every time”, so don’t give a warning, then a time-out, then a warning, then a time-out, etc.—because in doing so you are clearly being inconsistent with the consequence you are providing).