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Mastering Time-Out  

Time-out is one of the most effective techniques parents can use with their children but I often run into parents who say it doesn’t work for them.  Often the problem is more in the implementation of the time-out than it is in the children.

First of all, it is helpful to know that time-out is really short for the phrase “time out from reinforcement.”  That means it is a space to move children to where they don’t get any reinforcement, or reward, from anything.  Essentially, the most important characteristic of a time-out is it is boring.  There are some misconceptions out there that at times interfere with the implementation of time-out.  Its purpose is not to give children, or parents, time to calm down.  While taking a break to calm down can be helpful it isn’t the purpose of time-out.  It also isn’t good to tell children to think about what they did wrong while they are in time-out.  They should just be bored.

I would recommend against having a conversation with children about what they did wrong right after a time-out.  Generally speaking, you should minimize interaction right after the time-out and look for something positive they are doing you can then praise.  It may be good to have a conversation about what the child did wrong but if so, do it at a later time.  And if they clearly know what they did wrong or it is a conversation that has been repeated multiple times, don’t do it again.  Under those circumstances the problem isn’t understanding – it’s compliance.  Just let the time-out do its work.

One of the most important aspects of time-out is it should be administered in an emotionally neutral manner.  This can be difficult when dealing out discipline but is quite important.  Children react with their own emotional arousal when their parents get upset and that arousal can get in the way of the effectiveness of the time-out.  Frankly, it can also be reinforcing for children to see their parents emotionally upset.  It is a sign of their power, and power can be very rewarding. 

A good way to make sure time-out is being implemented in a calm manner is to make sure it gets implemented before you are too upset.  This actually is a good rule for any type of discipline.  Remember that discipline should not be something that gets implemented when a parent gets so frustrated they can’t handle it any more.  Instead, it should be something that is implemented in a predictable way in response to children’s behavior.