The time-out is a classic parenting tactic, one of the first disciplinary experiences most kids remember and one of the most basic punishments in human societies. By giving children a mandatory cooling-off period after they start acting out, it gives them the opportunity both to reflect on what they did wrong and forget about why they were upset in the first place. Children have marvelously short attention spans and are terrible at holding a grudge. When wielded correctly, time-outs can be an effective parenting solution that diffuses problems.
It is possible to use time-outs incorrectly. If they’re too long or don’t follow clear and consistent rules, your child will not see the time-out as a fair and tolerable punishment but a confusing and infuriating imprisonment with no predictability. Don’t give them time-outs without reason or for rules that are only in place some of the time. It’s important to set specific guidelines for your child, then remain consistent when you issue a time-out punishment.
Use the bedroom as the time-out spot
Time-outs are meant to give your child a chance to calm down and reflect. The best solution, most of the time, will be to send your child to his room. Deliver explicit instructions not to read, watch TV or play on the computer (it’s best not to put one of these in your child’s room in the first place) while he’s in time-out. His bedroom is the best choice for a time-out punishment because it’s a familiar, private place that allows him to lie down, vent his anger or get emotional without anyone watching. No one else will be able to speak to him if he’s alone in his bedroom, so he will be isolated, preventing him from getting into a fight with someone else.
Make sure your time-out is a reasonable length of time for the child. A good rule of thumb is you should send them to their room for one minute per year of life. Your six-year old, for example, would get a six-minute timeout. This is long enough that your child’s short attention span will allow him to move on from the incident and short enough that he won’t feel angry and unjustly trapped within the confines of his bedroom.
Explain the reasoning for the time-out
When you’re sending your child to time-out, it’s important that you tell him exactly why he’s going. Don’t dole out punishments without clear reason, and make sure that your logic and rules are consistent. Tell him what rule he broke, such as being too destructive or hurtful, disobeying orders, fighting with a parent or throwing a tantrum in a conversation.
Tell him he can’t use his toys or technology because he has to reflect on his actions rather than distract himself with something new, and show him that you’re setting a timer for when he can come out. Be honest about how much time you’re going to put him in time-out for, and don’t tell him he’s going for a five-minute time-out then wait 10 minutes to call him out. By sticking to your time-out rules, you will teach him that the rules are fair and unchanging, which will help him adjust to them.
Have a conversation after it’s over
After you’ve sent your child to his bedroom for a period of time, call him back out and have a conversation with him about why he was punished. Talk about what caused the incident, including what caused his behavior and why he broke a rule. Talk about the consequences of his action and why you gave him a time-out. Chances are, after several minutes he’s not nearly as angry and is itching to return to play. This conversation allows his to cement his good behavior in his head. Using time-outs can help your child calm down after misbehaving, and it can be an opportunity for you to discuss coping mechanisms when he starts feeling upset or agitated. It shouldn’t be a long, drawn-out punishment and you should keep the conversation afterwards brief. Let your child spend his time-out time reflecting on his actions; afterwards, let him return to play and trust that he’ll try to do better the next time.