Positive Time Outs

by Heligirl on March 20, 2010

in Parenting Articles

Time outs are a hot topic. I got a lot of comments and e-mails about it when I wrote about the 17 Guidelines of Positive Discipline. There are a lot of people out there that have instituted them and swear by them.

The tricky thing about time outs is they work, but if used as a punishment, they work for the wrong reasons that can really come to bite you down the road. To better understand this, it’s important to take a quick look at punishment on a whole. There are six main forms of punishment:

  • physical – hitting, shaking, pushing, pinching, ear twisting
  • Verbal – sarcasm, put-downs, ridicule, threats, humiliation
  • Isolation – banishment, extreme grounding, time outs
  • Withdrawl – withhold love and affection, take away unrelated privileges
  • Excessive tasks – working the chain gang kind of tack
  • Guilt

And the effects of punishment:

  • Stops the behavior temporarily
  • Distracts from the behavior
  • Is usually not logically related to the event (go to your room for hitting your sister)
  • Absolves the punisher of responsibility
  • Is often done in anger
  • Denies the child the chance to learn constructively
  • Escalates
  • May encourage negative behavior
  • Can create feelings of guilt or failure in the child
  • Teaches misconceptions about values

As a result of punishment, children will most often develop one of the following responses, the Four Rs of Punishment:

  • Resentment (“This is unfair, I can’t trust adults!”)
  • Revenge (“They’re winning now, but I’ll get even!”)
  • Rebellion (“I’ll do just the opposite to what they want!”)
  • Retreat (Sneakiness – “I won’t get caught again!” or Reduced Self-Esteem – “I’m a bad person!”)

That said no one punishes their child with the hopes of the above effects or outcomes. We want to teach them discipline – how to properly act in society, for the lack of a better catchall. Yet, the only real effective way to teach them how to achieve this is to take every opportunity to teach the correct behavior.

Positive time outs are a very handy tool in developing responsibility and problem solving. Positive time outs can be a way to calm down before anger gets out of control, to encourage children to take control of their emotions and assume responsibility for their behavior, and to help children feel better so they can cooperate and behave well. Kids do better when they feel better. Positive time outs help them feel better where punitive timeouts foster negative feelings. What’s more, positive time outs teach children the valuable life skill of learning to calm down before we say or do something we regret.

Here are some guidelines to follow regarding setting up this new time out:

  1. It’s important to involve your children in advance. Explain, in terms relevant to the age of your child) that there are times we get really upset and we need a special time and place to calm down before we say or do something bad. Work with him to choose or set up a place that will be calming and help him cool off, feel better and chance disruptive behavior into constructive behavior. It doesn’t have to be his room, but any quiet, out of the busy area spot. Put things that comfort him there – music, books, special toys, stuffed animals. Katheryn Kvols in Redirecting Children’s Behavior suggests modeling the process of using the special quiet spot. Get comfortable and ask yourself three questions: What is the problem? What is my part in the problem? What is the one thing I can do to improve the situation? Clearly, if you’re dealing with a toddler or young preschooler, you can speak more appropriately, such as “Why am I mad? How can I make it better?”
  2. Preserve your dignity and respect. Adult body language and tone of voice (which convey your beliefs) determine the message children receive about their behavior. It is important to be kind yet firm about inappropriate behavior while also remaining calm and respectful. (“Honey, I can see you’re very upset but throwing your car is not right. You can hurt someone. It looks like you need to take a break to feel better.”) Kvols suggests gently leading or carrying the child to the spot if he won’t go on his own. However, Jane Nelson in Positive Discipline, A-Z, suggests first asking the child if she wants to go to her “feeling better” place and if she says no, ask if she’d like you to go with her. If the answer is still no, then model the behavior and state that you’re going to go. Most likely the child will follow.
  3. Give choice to increase responsibility. Assist children in deciding how much time they need in the time out area until they are ready to return and behave better. “You decide when you will feel good enough to come back and play without hitting. Would you like to set a timer?” Kvols suggests if the child comes right back but is acting properly, then carry on with the activity. However, if the poor behavior persists, gently lead the child back to the spot until she has calmed down and can act appropriately.
  4. Use adult modeling. Adults can model using time out for themselves with dignity and respect. Kvols notes some children will get into a power play or battle over going to the time out spot. If that is the case, model the behavior yourself, telling the child that you’re really upset and need a time out yourself and that you’ll come out when you’re ready. The best way to end a tug of war is to drop the rope. “I’m so upset about this right now, I need to take a break to cool down. We can talk about this when I feel better.”

Notice this has nothing to do with sending the child away for behaving badly. You’re making it clear that he is upset and needs help calming down. Positive time outs are for helping a child learn to self-sooth and put them in a place mentally where they’re prepared to talk with you so you can together work out the root of the issue and develop a solution.

Once the child returns, depending on age and cues from your child, you can begin to discuss the issue. “Boy you were sure upset. What happened?” and so on in initiating some discussion. Problem solving is a whole additional topic.

Nelson warns, however, that positive time out (and time outs in general) are rarely appropriate for children under the age of three or four. Though some use this successfully in children as young as 18 months, be very aware of how you’re using time outs. Are you isolating the child? This will cause a distraction from the behavior and the child will respond in a way you desire, not because he has “learned his lesson” but because he’s afraid you might not love him and he needs to get your love back. He’s in fear. We ultimately want our children to want to behave appropriately of their own volition, not because they fear reprisal, disappointment and lack of a connection with you. Remember that isolation can engender the Four Rs of Punishment. In the end it does take a lot more work and patience on the part of the parent to walk this positive discipline line, but the end result of a mentally healthy, self confident, self disciplined teen and adult will pay off in spades.


Eva March 21, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Thanks for the post! Time outs are a very interesting topic for us because we have recently started incorporating them. We don’t really like the word “time out” because that seems negative and like a punishment. We calmly and kindly ask our son if “he wants a break” when he is feeling a little out of control emotionally (which sometimes manifests itself in destructive ways like throwing or even hitting or grabbing at us). We realize that he calms down so much quicker if he has a “break”. I’ve tried testing it the other way just saying “mama loves you” “it’s okay to be upset” “let me give you a hug” but the tantrum usually just gets worse until we put him in his “break” area which is his crib. Then we come to him and say we love him give a hug in less than a minute. He is always very sweet and cuddly then.

So all this is some background so I can ask a question of you. In your opinion how young is too young for timeouts? Our son is 18 months old and although some professionals say timeouts are more appropriate for 3 years olds (like you said), it seems to really work with our little guy. It was nice to see you mention that some experts think 18 months is okay. Thoughts?

P.S. I found your blog from the West Seattle Moms meetup group.

Heligirl March 21, 2010 at 6:36 pm

Hi Eva. Thanks so very much for the comment and sharing your experience. It sure is heartening to hear you’re able to use these positive time outs. I too have found they’ve been really productive because we started giving our daughter breaks to help her calm down about the time tantrums entered our lives (20 months or so). In all my reading about these, I’ve not found a strong reason why the three year mark is regularly mentioned other than this is most likely an average. I think the proper use of positive time outs (meaning avoiding using them as punishment) can have a positive affect on some children younger than others and that most likely stems directly from the child’s temperament. Some are wired to need that break and they are able to feel better so much faster once they have it. Sounds like your little guy may just fit that bill and you’ve been doing him an amazing service by both being so in tune with him to notice how to help him feel better and helping teach him how to make himself feel better (which he’ll grasp when he gets older). When my little darling is in the throws of one of her tantrums, I can’t talk to her or touch her either. That’s why I decided to start these time outs earlier than the experts recommended and I really thing her temperament made it all work. I think an 18-month-old still having separation anxiety would be the opposite side of the spectrum, to give you some perspective.

Thanks again for visiting and writing!! 🙂 –Jen

Kristi March 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm

In my experience and schooling “they” recommend 3 years old as a marker for time out because most children can conceptualize what it is for and why they need it. It’s and average, for sure and we all know every child is unique. Just like the pirate code it’s a guideline. No one wants to recommend harsh discipline for a baby. Many kids were thought to not need any discipline before three because they were considered babies still. Keep in mind Timeout is different than what you all are talking about. Taking a break to calm down is not harsh and let’s face it-it works well into adulthood. I wish more adults were taught to use it. I am not an expert but do have a lot of experience with kids and we used this type of timeout at our preschool (2-5 yr olds). It really helped the kids in our care to focus and re think the situation. I wonder if its used earlier for a child under 3 what could go wrong? What do the expert say will happen? I don’t remember any ill effects. Hmmm Jen did you come across any bad news for using this method? By the way love the blog!

Heligirl March 24, 2010 at 6:32 am

Hey Kristi, thanks so much for the comment! In reply to your questions, I really didn’t read anything that said something could “go wrong” per se by using Positive Time Outs before three. Many use them now. I think it depends on temperament. Some kids just won’t get it or benefit if it’s done too early for them. They may not be able to calm themselves, or have the language to understand what you’re telling them. Thanks also for sharing that you used these in your preschool and that they worked well. That’s just so cool, and very encouraging to hear. 🙂

Eva March 27, 2010 at 7:28 am

Thanks Jen and Kristi! It’s always nice to hear what other moms think about such issues. I feel pretty good about the direction we are going. Love the blog!

Heligirl March 27, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Thanks Eva. I’m so glad to hear this is valuable to others. I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Nicola Neil March 27, 2010 at 3:04 pm

This post is beyond awesome. I am always wondering what to do and what not to do so I will follow some of these tips.

Angel Zysk September 6, 2010 at 10:38 am

Loved the article about positive timeouts. I struggle with this all the time. Very good tips.
Thank you!

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