As we’ve been talking about all month, setting limits (including balancing limits with encouragement) is an important parenting tool to help children develop healthy behaviors and feel safe. However, setting limits is no easy task. It’s stressful, complicated, and sometimes downright aggravating. How are you supposed to set an effective limit when your child is crying so loudly you can barely hear yourself think? Or pushing all of your hot buttons? Or having his tenth meltdown of the morning? Setting limits is really tough, but also a critical part of helping children learn prosocial skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
One effective, albeit often misunderstood, limit setting strategy is time-out. Many parents have heard of and maybe even tried time-out, but because children don’t come with instruction manuals, time-outs may not have been successful or effective. Here are some tips about using time-outs effectively to help children learn positive skills and reduce problematic behaviors.
Limit the number of behaviors that result in a time-out. The first step of an effective time-out is defining what problem behaviors will result in a time-out. Time-out should be reserved for behaviors that are destructive or disruptive, such as hitting or not following directions. When used too often, time-out can feel punitive for children and lose its effectiveness for parents. Therefore, time-out should be reserved for highly problematic behaviors and balanced with lots of encouragement and redirection.
Have a safe time-out area free of distractions, valuables, and safety hazards. It is also important to identify a specific location for time-out. The area you choose should be quiet and free of distractions, valuables, and safety hazards. Time-out locations might include a chair in the corner of the dining room or bench at end of the hallway. Also, be sure you can monitor the time-out location from a distance to ensure your child’s safety. While bedrooms are commonly used for time-out, they may not be the most effective as they often contain many fun and rewarding toys. If you have to use a child’s bedroom for time-out, try to develop a plan for quickly removing access to toys and entertainment.
Think of time-out as a place to calm down. Instead of defining time-out as a punishment, think of it as an opportunity to help your child learn how to calm down when upset, angry, or dysregulated. Most adults have learned ways to maintain control of their behavior and emotions during challenging situations. Just think how difficult life would be if you threw a chair at your boss every time you got frustrated or had a tantrum every time you didn’t get what you wanted. Instead, you’ve learned how to step away from these aggravations and calm down. With practice, time-out teaches this same skill to your child. It removes her from the challenging situation to a distraction-free place where she can regain control, calm her emotions, and try again.
Time-out wipes the slate clean. Once your child successfully completes his time-out, it’s important to wipe the slate clean. Dwelling on problem behavior or bringing up past mistakes only escalates the situation again and reduces your child’s sense of being able to do a good job. When time-out is over, briefly thank your child for taking a good time-out and help him know how to get back to positive behavior. This might sound like, “Thanks for taking a good time-out. You can come back and play with your sister using a calm body and quiet voice.”
Provide encouragement as soon as possible for positive behavior following a time-out. Balancing lots of encouragement with time-out helps it be more effective as a limit setting strategy. Be on the look-out for positive behavior after your child is done with time-out and provide encouragement right away. For example, you might thank your child for using her safe hands to pet the dog, calm body to play with her friends, or kind words to talk with her brother. This lets your child know you care about and believe in her ability to use positive behavior, even if she might need a time-out every now and then. Time-out isn’t a big deal, it just means your child needs to calm down, take a few deep breaths, and try again. In fact, describing time-out to your child in this way and practicing taking a few good time-outs before using it as a limit setting strategy reduces reactivity and anxiety for everyone.
Avoid pairing time-out with hurtful, negative, or socially isolating words or actions. Finally, it is very important not to use time-out in a way that is hurtful, negative, or socially isolating. Make sure to avoid saying things such as, “You are bad, and I don’t want to see you right now. Go to time-out” or “Get away from me. Take a time-out.” Using time-out to socially isolate or reject your child teaches him that his behavior causes other people not to like him or want to be around him. It also sends the message he needs to handle challenging situations alone, without parental support. Instead of using hurtful statements such as those above, let your child know he is getting time-out for problematic behavior, not for being a bad kid. For example, you could say, “You are not allowed to hit your brother. Go to time-out.” As soon as he returns from time-out, allow him an opportunity to successfully play with his brother and offer lots of encouragement for a job well done.
Using these strategies can make time-out an effective part of your “toolbox” of strategies for helping your child to learn and practice appropriate behaviors.
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