Tag Archives: time-out

A New Look at Time-Out for Kids and Parents

A New-and-Improved Timeout Procedure

This is the first of a two-part piece on time-out. Both parts (and more) are included in the book: How to Talk so Parents will Listen and Listen so Parents will Talk: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344118211&sr=1-5&keywords=how+to+listen+so+parents+will+talk+and+talk+so+parents+will+listen

Timeout from reinforcement is an immensely popular behavioral response cost procedure. Unfortunately, most parents use it like corporal punishment; when children misbehave, parents put them in timeout. The problem with traditional timeout as practiced in most households is that parents wield it like a stick when, technically, it’s supposed to be the taking away of a carrot.

It’s possible that problems with timeout arise because the term is so deceptively simple that most people believe they automatically understand what timeout is and how to use it. In reality, there are a number of do’s and don’ts that parents need to learn about timeout; these will be covered in part II of this special and exciting time-out series. 

Timeout from reinforcement is a very brief time period during which children are not exposed to the normally rich, exciting, and rewarding stimulation of everyday life. Timeout is not “thinking time” and it should never be more than 10 minutes. Timeout is simply a break from all potential forms of positive reinforcement (including yelling, lecturing, and glaring).

Timeout Problems and Timeout Solutions

As Kazdin (2008) suggested (see the book, Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child), if brief and humane timeouts are not working, parents should not escalate their consequences. Instead, they should make time-in more enjoyable and work with their child on positive behavior simulations (described in the next section). Escalating punishment is a bad idea.

Typical complaints parents make about timeout are: (1) My child won’t go to timeout; and (2) my child won’t stay in timeout. Kazdin (2008) described, from a behavioral perspective, how to handle children who don’t go to timeout:

“If you declare a time-out and your child folds his arms and says, No, I’m not going, and you [shouldn’t] drag him, what do you do? First, give him an extra minute penalty. You can do this twice: up the time-out from two minutes to three, then to four. Then, if that doesn’t work, take away a privilege—something significant but brief, like no TV today. Then turn and walk away. Don’t give in if he then says, Okay okay okay, I’ll do it, because then you’d be reinforcing an unwanted sequence. . . . Let the consequence do the work. Resist the temptation to add little zingers. . . .” (pp. 142–143; italics in original)

Kazdin is making several excellent points in this description of how to handle timeout noncompliance. One part bears highlighting: When children refuse to do something physical, parents should not force them into the act.  Forcing a physical act is beyond reasonable parent power and control and can result in ugly and undesirable outcomes. Instead, as Kazdin suggests, the parent should shift to a consequence over which the parent has complete control and authority (and the child’s physical movements is not one of these things).

Emotions and Emotional Timeouts

Timeouts will often elicit strong emotions and strong emotions will often elicit timeouts. This highlights the question of how to deal with children’s emotions before, during, and after timeouts.

Parents are the best experts on their own children’s emotional states and so the helping professional’s job is to help parents balance a reasonable response to misbehavior (a brief timeout) with their children’s need for empathy, emotional soothing, and emotion coaching.

Case: An Emotionally Soothing Timeout

Parent: When I try to put my child into timeout, he becomes an emotional basket case. He screams and cries and it’s really terrible.

Consultant: That sounds very hard. It really reminds me of how important it is for parents to set limits on misbehavior and provide empathy and comfort for difficult emotions at the same time. It’s possible to do both.

Parent: How do I do that?

Consultant: You need to stand firm on not giving in to whatever your child wanted before the timeout was called. So, if your child hit another boy and grabbed a toy, you would never give back the toy or put your child back with the other boy before the timeout was served. You stay firm because whenever your child is aggressive or obnoxious you cannot give in to him and give him what he wants. That’s a huge parenting rule.

Parent: Okay, I understand that.

Consultant: Then, you need to decide how much emotional support your child needs. If he’s heading toward inconsolable sobbing, you may need to make it a brief thirty-second to one-minute timeout. Right at the end, you swoop in and comfort and console and help him understand what he did wrong and what he could do next time to avoid the timeout. This is because if your child is sobbing, he’s already experienced the punishment and so there’s no need to prolong it.

Parent: But I’ve always heard you should keep your child in timeout until he behaves, or at least until he’s served one minute for each year of his age.

Consultant: There’s crazy information out there about timeout. The truth is: The first minute is the most important. Waiting for him to behave or calm down on his own could be too traumatic for both of you. And the one-minute-for-each-year is a general guideline that should be adjusted for individual children.

Parent: Okay.

Consultant: The only reason you might wait longer would be if you believed your child was pretending to be upset to get your attention. Even then, you shouldn’t wait long before offering emotional comfort, maybe two minutes.

Parent: Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure he’s not faking it.

Consultant: Another thing to keep in mind is that some children, and your son may be an example, need help with emotional soothing. He may need a calming timeout more than he needs a bad-behavior timeout. If that’s the case, find a big pillow or comfortable spot and have him do his timeout there. And if he’s really a wreck, spend the timeout with him and help him recover.

This dialogue illustrates some of the complexities and misconceptions of timeout. For example, when the consultant suggests using a big pillow for a timeout spot instead of the classic chair or corner, she’s illustrating that she understands that timeout is a response-cost procedure and not a punishment procedure. The purpose is not to inflict pain or discomfort, but to take away the “fun” of time-in. This is an important distinction for parents to understand and it can be much more productive and effective for children to serve their brief timeout in a comfortable spot (without toys or books). In fact, to promote emotional de-escalation it may even be appropriate for parents to take their child to his or her room and engage in gently playful activities while expressing empathy for the child’s emotional state and hope for emotional recovery.

Overall, when choosing to use timeouts as a reasonable consequence for specific behaviors (e.g., hitting a sibling or parent), parents should anticipate their children’s potential emotional reactions. These reactions can range from rage and anger to sadness, tears, and inconsolable sobbing. Parents should also consider emotional-recovery timeouts, during which emotional soothing takes place. Finally, parents can role-model timeout behavior by taking one themselves—especially when they’re emotionally upset and need to do a little deep breathing.



John puts himself in timeout. . .


Parenting Advice: Don’t Say it More than Three Times

A Visit to the Mall

Here’s what a parent of a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old explained when she came in for a consultation:

Parent: My friend invited me and my two kids to meet her and her two-year-old at Bellevue Square for dinner and shopping. I knew better. This friend makes me feel insecure. We met for dinner at this nice café and there’s nothing there my kids will eat. After a while, they start running around the café. I settle them down and we walk around to shop and my five-year-old son is running way ahead and I keep trying to get him to get back with us and he won’t listen. We eventually get to a pet store and my two-year-old is climbing on stuff and my five-year-old is knocking on the pet-cage glass right where it says “Don’t knock on the glass” and he won’t stop. Finally, I drag them both to a bench and make them sit there and I yell at them and they start crying and I’m humiliated and have to carry them both outside to the car and yell at them some more. I was one of those parents you see who has out-of-control children and then goes berserk.

Consultant: So, eventually your kids started listening to you? [Focusing on how the negative behavior sequence finally stops can be revealing.]

Parent: Yes. Because they knew it was over.

Consultant: When you tell that story it reminds me of how kids can sometimes almost read our minds and know when something is really important to us and know when they can take advantage of us by not listening. But then when we somehow make it clear that the fun and games are over, suddenly they get it and cooperate.

Parent: I felt so uncomfortable with my friend and her potty-trained little girl and I couldn’t even come close to controlling my kids. And later that night, when I was talking about it to my 5-year-old, I apologized for yelling and losing my mind and I asked him why he didn’t listen to me and he said, “I listened, I just didn’t do what you said.” I couldn’t believe it!

Consultant: That’s amazing. So, he really did know what was going on.

Parent: He did and he still didn’t cooperate.

Consultant: Can I share some ideas with you?

Parent: Yes. I’d love some ideas!

Consultant: We used to have a parent educator here who taught a class called, “They only listen when I yell . . . and other parenting myths.” The point of the class was exactly what you’ve been talking about. It’s not that our kids only pay attention when we yell, it’s that they only comply when they know we’re completely serious. Tell me, how many times did you have to ask your five-year-old to cooperate before he finally did?

Parent: It had to be twenty times. I was trying to get him to sit down at the café, to come back to us when we were shopping, to stop knocking on the glass at the pet shop, and he would sometimes partly respond and sometimes not at all, until the end, when he sat on the bench and started crying.

Consultant: Here’s what I’m thinking. You already said you set yourself up with this dinner with this friend and her practically perfect two-year-old. I’ll bet somewhere inside you were really wanting to avoid a confrontation with your kids and the embarrassment that goes with it. And they sensed you were a little bit afraid to confront them and afraid to give out firm consequences and so they just chose not to listen or cooperate.

Parent: I know. I know. I don’t even take my two-year-old grocery shopping any more because it’s too much. And obviously they knew I didn’t really want to follow through with any consequences. But what can I do?

Consultant: I have two ideas and the first one will sound really weird.

Parent: Just tell me.

Consultant: This is crazy, but you need to start looking forward to when your children have tantrums or misbehave.

Parent: That is weird.

Consultant: I know, but unless you look forward to it, with confidence that you can handle whatever they do, they’ll sense your dread and fear and they’ll be the ones who are confident they can do whatever they want—like run ahead in the mall and knock on the pet store glass cages—because they sense you’re afraid to stop them.

Parent: Okay. I get it. But I don’t know how I can look forward to a meltdown in the mall.

Consultant: And that’s exactly why we need to develop a nice and clear and practical plan for the next time this sort of thing happens. You need a very simple plan for limit-setting with your children. Because if you have to ask them to cooperate twenty times, they know they don’t have to pay any attention or respect to you—until the twentieth time when you’re yelling and screaming. The plan should have one or two warnings and then a small consequence. For example, in the mall situation, it might have been embarrassing, but the first time your kids didn’t respond to your requests to sit down or walk with you, you could have given a clear warning, something like, “Okay, if you don’t walk with me, then we’ll go outside and spend some time on the bench until you’re ready to come back in.” Then, the second time one of them didn’t cooperate, you’d calmly collect them and take a brief timeout on the bench or in your car. Then, if it happened a third time, you could turn to your friend and say, “I’m sorry, but it looks like my kids aren’t cooperating right now and so I need to take them home.” I know that might have felt embarrassing and awkward, but it would communicate very clearly to your children that you are a serious mom who’s confident in her limits and decisions.

Parent: It wouldn’t have been half as embarrassing as the way things turned out.

In this case, we developed a very simple limit-setting system. It involved three steps:

1.  The first time the children misbehave, give a clear warning.

2.  The second time the children misbehave, take them into a brief and boring timeout from the fun.

3.  The third time the children misbehave, the fun activity ends.

In addition to these three steps, we discussed managing the children’s physical needs by checking if they were hungry, tired, sick, or hurting and planning in advance for outings. We also discussed how she could review with her children, in advance of the outing, exactly what she expected and exactly what would happen (brief public timeout, followed by a disappointing trip back home) if misbehavior occurred. Finally, we suggested that she set up some practice outings where she could quickly and effectively implement the consequences without the pressure of a friend looking on. The purpose of these outings was to practice the plan and demonstrate to her children exactly what would happen if and when public misbehavior occurred.

Overall, this procedure is consistent with what we know from the science of behavioral psychology. As Kazdin (2008) states: “Here’s a rough rule of thumb to go by: if you say it twice (the initial instruction plus one reminder), that’s reminding; if you say it three or more times, you’re nagging and nagging can undermine [your credibility and power]” (p. 172). In addition to Kazdin’s good advice, we like to emphasize to parents that most children are amazingly intuitive—like dogs, they can sense their parents’ fear.