Parenting expert Diane Levy writes about Time Out as one of many effective behaviour strategies for disciplining young children, and how to use this behaviour technique effectively to discipline your 1, 2, 34 year old and older child.

What is Time Out?

From time immemorial, children have been sent to their rooms when they have misbehaved. This gives them a clear message that this behaviour (whether it’s hitting, biting, spitting or scratching, to name a few) will not be accepted. Similarly, when our children refuse to do as they are asked, or refuse to stop doing something they have been asked to desist from, they need to be sidelined from the family team until they see it their parent’s way. In recent times, this has become know as “time out”.

Time Out is effective because of children’s need for parental support and because, instead of children battling with their parents, they wind up battling with themselves (’I don’t feel like doing that; but it looks like I’m stuck here till I do!’).

Give them space to work it out

Thus the purpose of Time Out is not to punish a child. It is to provide a quiet, safe space for a child to wrestle with the issue of wanting to do things his way versus the need to be part of the family. You can walk away knowing your child is safe, and busy coming to terms with the fact that nothing much else is going to happen in their lives until they are willing to do as they are told or stop behaving in a certain manner.

What do we want?

Which behaviours are you not prepared to tolerate? Begin with the ones that hurt, like pinching, hitting, biting, shoving and pulling hair. Then move on to the ones that happen regularly throughout the day, such as holding still while you wash their face, help them dress or change their nappy.

Choice? What choice?

Remember, when we say, ‘if you bite your brother, you will go to Time Out’ then it appears as if we are giving our child a choice. They can choose to hurt their brother and then take the punishment. Provided they can tolerate the Time Out, they are free to bite their brother. We do not want this. We want a child who has decided not to bite.

So what is the right age for discipline?

When your child’s body language says “I know I am not supposed to be doing this. What are you going to do about it?” And if this is accompanied by a challenging eye and/or cheeky smile, then they are giving you “the look” and are ready for discipline.

Mastery of “the look” can start with some children as soon as they can crawl, while others will be as old as 18 months.

Tots Time Out

The lightest form of Time Out is when you simply get preoccupied and wait. For example, you want your 18 month–old to sit in his highchair, but he decides to run away, saying ‘No’, wanting to play or he arches his back and struggles. You quietly get on with something else. Your child doesn’t like the emotional distance and has ‘changed his mind’ and decided to do as you asked. Fairly soon you hear a little voice saying, ‘Up, Up.’

No need to explain

The baby is sitting quite peacefully on the floor, playing. The toddler walks past and pushes him over. You simply pick your toddler up and put her in her room. You don’t need to say why – you both know her behaviour was inappropriate.

Once you get to her bedroom, comment along the lines of, “You know you’re not allowed to push your brother.” Leave her in her room and walk out saying, “I’ll be back to check if you’re ready to behave.”

Where do I put them for Time Out?

Choose any spot where your child is safe and cannot get out. I favour a cot because it is safe and easy on my back.

When I put my toddler to sleep in his cot, I am loving, soothing and full of emotional support; “kiss for Mummy, goodnight teddy, goodnight Daddy. Sleep tight.”

When my toddler is being cheekily defiant or deliberately obstructive, I scoop him up and place him in his cot. Although the place is the same, my attitude is so different, as I emotionally distance myself from his behaviour, that it might as well be a different planet.

Any safe spot will do, if you have any concerns about using a cot or a bedroom, a step, or a corner. Time Out is not a cot or a room. Time Out is an attitude – a state of mind.

Slightly older children

Sometimes all you need to do to gain compliance is to shut down. You have asked for something to be done. You now go quietly about what you need to do. Your child experiences the emotional distance and decides to comply.

Sometimes your child will need to check to see if you still mean it. ‘Mum, do you know if I have ballet this afternoon?’ Show her you still have in mind your original request. ‘First, please take your lunchbox to the kitchen. Then we’ll discuss ballet.’

But they keep coming out!

It is important to recognize here that you are dealing with serious non-compliance. Your child is not taking any notice of your requests to behave and obviously doesn’t believe that you mean he must stay in his room.

Escort him to his room and shut the door and secure it in some way. You can tie it to the next door or, even better; install a small bolt sufficiently high up so that you can’t be locked in!

You only need to be this powerful when your child has already shown that he has no respect for your instruction to stay in his room.

Time Out for older children and Teens

As our children get older we are still going to ask them to do things or to stop doing things. Luckily, they are still going to need our advice, our support and our services, so the same principle applies.

It is hard to control what our younger children do. It is impossible to control what our older children do. The only thing we have any real control over is our own actions.

We cannot make a 15 year old take her plate to the bench. But we can decide that we are not going to get involved in her life until the plate is on the bench. Sooner or later our child will need something from us. We can say calmly, and without any threat or sarcasm, “first, put your plate on the bench and then I’d be happy to help.”

It may work. It may not. But relax and remember that you have asked for a perfectly reasonable and simple task to be completed, one that is well within your child’s capability. Go about whatever you need to do, quietly powerful in the knowledge that you have asked for something to be done and you are not available until it is done.

Major Tip

Whatever the age of your children, it is no use putting up with dreadful behaviour all day and then at 5:30pm screaming, “I’ve had enough. That’s the absolute limit. You go to your room. I don’t want to see you,” then expecting your child to go there quietly and come out two minutes later a reformed character.

Timeout is not a last-resort technique.

Start at the beginning of the day, quietly and powerfully insisting that each thing you ask for is done before anything else happens. If you do this three times before 7:30am, you may be amazed at how sweetly the rest of the morning goes.

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Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents. She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."

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I use time out occasionally but do see it as punishment (isolation). I prefer time out via self regulation using reflective questioning and think my nearly 3 year old is now pretty good at leaving the room himself (or with a wee reminder – Is that behaviour ok? “no” you need to sort the problem out or away you go – come back when you are ready to sort it etc) when behaviour slips then returning when he is ready to be a part of things appropriately. What are your thoughts on this?

Diane Levy

Hi Vanessa Thank you for taking the time to reflect and to respond. I do appreciate that. I prefer to see Time Out exactly as you have expressed it. The child needs to “sort the problem out or away you go – come back when you are ready to sort it”. For most compliance issues – requesting a child to do something or to stop doing something – this is exactly the way I would like parents to think about Time Out…a time for the child to take over the problem and wait till they have worked out that they… Read more »

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