Time out needs rules to work

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
From time to time I get asked about the value and effectiveness of time out, writes parenting columnist Ian Munro.

In my view it can be effective for children aged 18 months to 8 years if managed well. It’s less draining on us than other punishments and certainly better than constantly yelling at them. But therein lies the rub. Effective management.

It’s not just a case of sending them to sit somewhere for a while; some structure around it is needed. If not, it can become a bit of a laugh, even a way of attention-seeking.

We do need to truly isolate our child immediately and for a short, set, well-understood cooling-off period — one minute for each year of their age is recommended. A formalised structure helps keep us consistent, which is as important as the isolation.

Time out needs to be uninteresting, where things like television and toys can’t be viewed or played with. It mustn’t be a dark, scary or dangerous place — not in a cupboard under the stairs, for example. The aim is to remove them to a place where nothing is happening, not to create fear.

Choose something like a chair, perhaps in a corner, or a stair to sit on where they’re safe but isolated, then have something nearby that accurately indicates the passing of the time — a kitchen timer with a loud tick does this well.

To ensure consistency, we need to discuss with any other adults around the behaviours that will result in time out and what you want for time out. It’s not time out if Grandma, for example, is busy pulling faces to make the child laugh. Nor if another child is in sight and communicating in some way.

Finally, at a time when we don’t need to use it, we’ll need to explain what time out is all about — that it’s something that will follow naughty behaviour and involve sitting quietly on this chair in this place until the timer rings.

There will be just three rules to follow. Rule one is that the timer will start once they’re seated. Rule two covers what happens if the chair is left before the timer rings. They’ll be sent back to or placed on the chair and the timer will be reset. Test understanding by asking what will happen if they’re naughty or leave the chair.

Totally ignore screams or cries. To respond is to give attention and attention isn’t time out.

Rule three is that we alone decide when they can leave time out and it’s a good idea to get them to tell us why they were put there in the first place. They might need more time to ponder this.

The slate is then clean.

 - Ian Munro

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