There’s a mom in the grocery store whose five-year-old is getting restless and keeps bumping into his little sister, looking for a fight. “Cut it out,” his mom hisses, “or you’ll have a big time out when we get home!”
Sound familiar? Almost every parent has heard of time outs, and many use them as a disciplinary tool. But here’s something you may not know: Time outs are most helpful not when used as a punishment, but as a way to defuse tense situations so kids — and parents — can calm down.
This way of thinking may help you avoid some common pitfalls that often make this popular discipline technique all but useless. Read on for our troubleshooter’s guide to time outs.
“My daughter gets even more upset when I call a time out.”
Because time out is a strategy for ending conflict, you don’t want to fight about it. Figure out the best way to help your child settle down and make that the time out. Perhaps a hug and a familiar tune will do the trick, suggests Vancouver family educator Fran Kammermayer (who prefers to call the strategy a “calm down”). Or you could designate a “calming cushion” on the couch. It shouldn’t be a place you go when you’re “bad,” but somewhere to be quiet for a few minutes. You could use the cushion yourself when you get worked up — or even if you feel like reading quietly — so your child will realize everyone needs to take a break once in a while.
“He won’t sit still for the whole time.”
Although the standard is one minute per year of age, don’t worry too much about numbers — a time out isn’t a jail sentence. Focus instead on helping your child regain control. You might have to use your judgment to know when he’s ready to come back —maybe his tone of voice has changed, or he’s still fidgety but a lot calmer.
“There’s no calming cushion in the grocery store.”
A temper tantrum in public can be especially awkward — you’re on unfamiliar turf with no lack of spectators. You can try to keep track of how your child is doing (is she hungry or tired?), but you can’t always avoid conflict. “You need to have a plan, an escape strategy, before leaving home,” says Kammermayer. You could go to the car or a washroom and do the time out there. If the meltdown is coming on too quickly, look for a bench or open space and hunker down until your child settles. In a situation like that restless five-year-old and his sister in the grocery store, try separating the two by seating one in the grocery cart.
“My son seems to like time out — it must not be working!”
If your son likes time out, congratulations, it is working! Again, the point isn’t to scold him, but to teach him how to calm down when he gets agitated. (It’s something many adults need to work on as well, if road rage is any indication.) So if your child enjoys calming down, what’s wrong with that? You’ve avoided a yelling match, and he’s developing the important skill of coping with frustration.