Timeouts: When and How to Use Them

By Lizzie Vasquez

On any given day, parents with rebellious kiddos may find themselves handing out timeouts as fast as they hand out snuggles — one every minute!

Kristina Chance, registered play therapist and owner of the counseling practice Play and Wellness Center of Gainesville, said timeouts require an explanation and should be implemented with nurturing guidance. “Children often don’t connect their behaviors to future outcomes – good or bad,” she said. “The timeout should be implemented without shaming or isolating.”

If using timeouts to discipline children for bad behavior, it is important to explain to the child what a timeout is and give examples of why they may be sent to timeout. Parents should not be angry when they have this conversation with their kids, and it should take place before misbehavior occurs. This general warning is important for helping the child understand that their actions have consequences. Choosing a specific spot or chair can help show consistency with discipline and a clear picture of what your child can expect.

Chance recommends that timeouts begin at infancy. However, rather than using the typical style of sitting them down and explaining their behavior, parents should redirect their child from one activity to another if their actions are not preferred, or remove a toy that they were playing with because of the way they were using it. Timeouts, in the sense of sitting down and explaining, can start at about 18 months to 2 years old, she said.

Generally, the amount of time your child should spend in timeout is one minute per year of your child’s age. However, some parents may learn this is too little or too long for their child, rendering their timeout ineffective.

If you find that timeouts are not working for your child, it may be because they are not balanced with enough positive engagement, said Chance. “Children crave attention and when their individual attention needs are being fully met, they will do anything to get it,” she said. “Removing them from the one way they get attention is not going to be effective because they will continue to act in a way to get attention.”

To counteract this, parents should focus on incorporating more positive time with their children. Chance recommends parents participate in 10 to 15 minutes of child-directed play time every day.

Gainesville mom, Brittany Fair, does not use timeouts for fear of negative reinforcement and miscommunication. “Before I had children I studied early childhood education at [Santa Fe College] and took a class on positive discipline and reinforcement,” she said. “I learned that timeouts make children feel isolated and like they have to work through their problems on their own.”

Instead of timeouts, Fair uses a method known as “time-ins,” during which she sits with her daughter and helps her work through her feelings.

“When she is too upset or worked up to talk things out, we practice breathing exercises (like pretending to blow bubbles) until she is calm enough to work through it,” said Fair. “I believe in the phrase ‘children who need love the most ask for it in the most unloving ways’ and feel that when children act inappropriately they need connection, not isolation — easier said than done at times.”

Whether you use timeouts or another method, do not wait to discipline your child. The consequence should come immediately after the inappropriate action. And, after their time is up, do not dwell on their misbehavior. Remind them why they were sent to timeout and move on with life. Do not forget that rewarding your child for good behavior and reassuring them of your love are always positive ways of teaching.


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