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A child’s main objective is to figure out his place in the world. Children do this by exploring their surroundings and testing the boundaries given to them. You have seen it before: a child is acting out and the parent, red in the face and sweating, is trying not to lose her cool. Cue the idle threat: “Do you want a time-out?”

What an absurd question. Of course the child doesn’t WANT a time-out. But you know full well he deserves one for the actions he’s just displayed. So why are parents setting up a situation for an already unruly and willful child to defy and argue with them? It comes down to idle threats, and as parents and educators, we are all guilty of it to one degree or another.

So how can we maintain authority without losing our minds or a child’s respect? Time-out procedures, when used correctly, are techniques that should decrease displays of undesired behavior. Before implementing a time-out, determine what behaviors warrant one, because, if time-out is used for every behavioral misstep, it will lose its potency. Here are some suggestions:

1. Eliminate second chances. If your child has displayed a behavior that warrants a time-out, you simply state: “That gets you a time-out,” then put him there. You may need to physically prompt your child into the time-out area (a place that is quiet and contains minimal-to-zero distractions such as TV, computers, or other people). When you threaten a time-out, then don’t deliver, you send a message to your child that you don’t always mean what you say, and that he doesn’t always have to listen to you. It is fine to negotiate, but not when implementing a new strategy for the first time. Save the compromises for when you have noticed your child’s behavior improving and he has grasped the concept of time-out.

2. How long should time-out be? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics a time-out should be in a years-to-minutes ratio. So if your child is 2 years old, the time-out should be two minutes long. Four years old should get a four-minutes-long time-out. You get my drift.

3. Implement verbal accountability. Before time-out begins, state to your child why he is in time-out. “You pulled your sister’s hair. That is why you are in time-out.” After the minutes are up, return to your child and ask him to tell you why he is in time-out. If he cannot answer, then repeat the reason why and begin the minutes again. He can be excused from time-out when he can tell you why he is there to begin with. The whole purpose of time-out is that it gives the child a chance to reflect on his actions, so if he can’t state why he got into trouble, then the time-out was pointless.

4. Combat escape tactics. Every child is going to attempt to get out of punishment. “But I’m scared in here by myself.” “I miss you mommy.” “I love you, you’re so pretty.” “I hate you! You’re so mean to me.” Oh, what master manipulators children can be. All of these statements are made with the intention of gaining your attention and sympathy. Stay strong. Stay cool. Let them talk all they want, but do not respond or react until the time is up (and they made good on suggestion number 3).

If your child attempts to leave the time-out zone, you should non-verbally put him back in, and start the time-out again. This might feel like a time-out tango, but what your child learns is that you are the authority and he is responsible for his actions.

5. Check your ego at the door. This is for those times when your child acts out in public or at other peoples’ homes. You notice how people are staring at your child acting out. Your relatives are giving you looks of sympathy mixed with judgment. You want your child’s behavior to just stop.

Don’t be self-conscious about employing your tactics of discipline. It’s tempting to think that your child’s behavior is a major reflection on you, but it’s actually your reaction to the behavior that is judged. Kids are going to be impossible, that’s a given. But just because he lost control doesn’t mean you have to. Although you’re away from your home and your usual time-out zone, try to designate one. Again, it only needs to be an area that has minimal distraction, away from the situation. It could be a bathroom, a car, a staircase, etc.

• • •

In this day and age, the old forms of discipline (spanking, lashing, etc.) are not only illegal, but also found to be antiquated and ineffective. When a child is “physically” disciplined, he remembers the pain and develops a degree of fear, but rarely remembers why he was reprimanded to begin with. Time-outs provide a more dignified form of punishment when used effectively, and will aide in decreasing problematic behaviors with typical and atypically developing children. Remember, you may have a little “terrorist” living with you, but we, as parents, will not negotiate with terrorists. Good luck, everyone.

Dana Connelly holds dual Master’s Degrees in Education and Special Education, working as an educational evaluator for a New York-based evaluation site. She specializes in Applied Behavior Analysis and is the proud single mother of a 5-year-old boy.

Updated 6:39 pm, October 28, 2016
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