Updated: Mar 3, 2020
As a child therapist and parent coach, I often hear:
“Time-outs just don't work with him.”
“She won't stay in her room,” or
"She won't go to her room for her time out."
In response, let's talk about how and when to use a time-out.
First off, I define “time-out” as a coping strategy for emotion regulation. Think of it as an enforced cooling off period to calm body and mind. It is not the consequence for bad behavior or an opportunity to sit in the corner and think about what was done wrong.
Second, I emphasize that time-outs are the defense against aggressive behavior and are therefore intended to be rare. They are utilized when physical and verbal aggression has taken your child out of the realm of reason and logic. To explain, your child is too agitated to problem solve, or you as a parent are too agitated and you need to calm down before you can intervene effectively. If your child’s behavior requires daily time-outs, you need to either evaluate their current behavior and your parenting plans OR consider requesting professional support.
Third and perhaps most importantly, I stress the instructional element of the time-out. When your child is elevated and aggressive, she doesn’t know what else to do with her feelings. She needs concrete guidance, not just a spot to be sent. Time-outs are real-time education opportunities about how to act appropriately when upset. This means that time-outs can be anywhere that is calming and safe. It also means that time-outs focus on relaxation and healthy coping strategies such as breathing, productive destruction (ie tearing paper, crushing cans or boxes in your recycling bins), and moving, singing, or writing.
Time-outs are 5 minutes long or less. Why? Because breathing, moving (i.e. running around the house, kicking a ball, doing the stairs) and expressing oneself lower the heart rate, focus the mind, and allow the thinking brain to turn on within 5 minutes. More time may actually allow the initial frustration to resurface. Or worse, it breeds resentment for what’s perceived by your child as punishment rather than instruction about what to do with those nasty feelings.
When the time-out is done, be ready to welcome your child back. Praise them for going calmly and/or using the time effectively. At this point, you can revisit what happened and what to do about it. There may be consequences for their behavior or there may be a strategy developed for what to do next time.
If 5 minutes has passed and you or your child is still elevated, it’s okay to take or recommend more time. Make an effort to praise any little effort your child makes to use their words, resist screaming, stop hitting, or ask for your help. Your acknowledgement and praise of these steps reinforces the behaviors you want them to learn and gives a better chance for them to repeat them the next time. Yes, sadly, there will probably be a next time.
If your child won't take the time-out the message remains that you are disengaging from the conflict until he (and you) have calmed down in mind and body. Remove your attention in as neutral a manner as possible. Again, make an effort to praise any effort your child makes to calm himself down. Stay the course, your child really can and will learn emotion regulation skills with helpful guidance from you.