My style as a parent is to read everything I can get my hands on, pick and choose what makes sense to me and then stick with what works after putting it into practice.  Not everybody does that, though, and in fact my husband reads almost nothing about parenting.  The man who reads sugar packets, instruction manuals for vacuum cleaners, releases of liability, any fine print….reads nothing about parenting.  And yet, he’s a great dad, and I think in no small part because he is a very good observer and he is very logical.  And perhaps he is wise enough to listen to his pediatrician wife.

One of the most critical things we do for our kids is to set limits for them.  I am not a fan of trying to control everything our kids do or don’t do, but I am a fan of putting up boundaries that are logical, safe and consistent.  Pushing your brother, pulling the cat’s tail, throwing a toy car, running into the street – none of these are ever acceptable and should invite a consistent, unwavering response.   Parents of toddlers observe that their children are exceedingly power-hungry – but pediatricians and wise grandparents will tell you that kids are terrified when they possess too much power.  It freaks them out and they tend to behave more erratically, even though they have what they thought they wanted.  So one of the best gifts you can give your toddler or preschooler is “just enough” power – power to make lots of different choices, power to play in a safe area without hearing no/put that down/don’t touch that/get out of that box, and power to have their needs met.  But they don’t need, and shouldn’t have, so much power that they hurt others, willfully defy their parents or constantly push unpredictable limits.

One of the things I absolutely can’t stand to hear from my parents (i.e. my patients’ parents) when we’re tackling a tough behavioral issue is, “We’ve tried everything.”   Well of course you haven’t.  What they usually mean is that they’ve “tried a little of this and a lot of that and we’re insanely frustrated.”  That I can work with.

I start with dividing behavior into 2 major categories: tantrum behavior and time out behavior.  It’s obviously more complicated than that, but it’s a start.  Today we talk about time out behavior.  I think it’s a tool that every parent, daycare center, young elementary school classroom, aunt/uncle/grandparent needs.  And it works.  I promise.

“Time Out” is a powerful tool.  It is a stop signal, providing instant feedback about a behavior.  It’s not an indictment of the child who has made a mistake, but it’s a message that “what you just did was not ok.”  I have read many ways to tackle this basic discipline strategy, and I will cheer you on if you find a better way for you, but this is how I do it:

  • Time Out is a place.  It can be on a towel (that you can take to HEB or the zoo or wherever), a step, a chair, a mat, a stool, whatever.   The main thing is that it is a SAFE place where they can’t hurt themselves or ingest a dangerous chemical.  I do not recommend their bed.  I do not prefer a pack-n-play.
  • Use a Timer.  Always.  It can be a microwave timer that beeps, an egg timer, a digital timer, your watch.  The timer dismisses the child from time out, not the parent.  You need something objective in your corner.  1 minute for each year of age.  You may (read…you almost invariably will have to) hold your child in the time out place the first few (or few hundred) times.  When the timer goes off, they get up.
  • Practice when they’re in a good mood.  Role playing is great – so practice this new technique on them when they’re happy and you can walk them through it and set expectations on how it’s going to work.   Another good tip is to use an older sibling to train the younger one – even if your 5-6 year old is easily disciplined without time-out, use it anyway as the way to help the younger sibling know how the gig works.
  • Start at about 18 months.  If your child has developmental delays or language delays, let’s talk about when would be appropriate, but in general, 18 month olds can understand time out.
  • Pick your battles.  Choose about 2 or 3 target behaviors that are driving you crazy to focus on.  Focus on these and “nail him” every time he does these 2-3 behaviors. Parents need to agree about which 2-3 they are going to tackle first and post the list on the fridge so you can be consistent.  For other annoying behaviors, ignore them for now.  We call this “benign neglect,” in that you aren’t giving them any power one way or the other.  It’s interesting, but once you get control of the 2-3 target behaviors, things often fall into place surprisingly well for the minor things too.
  • When the target behavior occurs, you may give ONE WARNING.  “If I see you throw that block one more time, you will go to time out.”  You don’t have to yell.  You don’t have to look like a crazy person.  You just have to have a serious tone and give them direct eye-to-eye contact.  Speak clearly but not loudly.  If the behavior happens again, immediate say “Time Out For _________.”  Keep it brief, i.e. “Time out for hitting.  Time out for hurting your sister.”  If your child can and will walk to Time Out, escort them there.  If they won’t, you need to carry them there.  If they will stay, you can turn away.  If they will not stay, you can hold them there.  You may want to reach around from the back if your child kicks/bites/hits.  This is the time to stay absolutely calm and act like it’s not bothering you.  Even if this is the 100th time in Time Out today.
  • Put on the timer.  Do not have a conversation about why they are there.
  • If they are willing to sit, you NEED to turn away and ignore them.  This is not a time for attention.  If possible, be fairly far away from them, even in another room.  Make sure they’re safe and that you can see them, but they can’t see you or anything entertaining.
  • When the timer goes off, have a very brief conversation about why they were in time out, something like this, “Why did you go to time out?  Hitting, that’s right.  We don’t hit.  What’s the rule?  NO HITTING.”  It’s good if they can repeat the rule.  I don’t insist on saying “sorry” though some do.  I took a page from my daughter’s Montessori school that they didn’t require them to say something that they did not necessarily feel – that’s confusing for children.  They would require a response, “I will not hit,” rather than saying something they might or might not feel.  {As they get older I made them say sorry whether they meant it or not – I think they need to learn the appropriate social response at some point.   Hopefully they felt it, but I wouldn’t count on it consistently!}
  • Your child may scream, kick and fight you to what feels like the death when you put them in time out.  Training a child in the way he or she should go is HARD WORK.  It is not for sissies.  It is for parents who are in the game to produce a good adult.  Use your brain in these cases, not your heart that breaks for your child who seems bewildered or impossibly angry.
  • As your child gets older and/or ratchets up the stakes by screaming just to drive you insane, you can insist that they are still and quiet before you start the timer.  I can still hear myself telling my then 2 year old daughter, “the timer will start when you’re quiet” about 3 million times.
  • LOVE LOVE LOVE them when they are finished with time out.  It is a time to come back together and tell them that you are proud that they sat in time out or that you know they will make a better choice next time.  It’s a time to restore their peace and remind them that they are loved and adored even when they make a mistake.  What a beautiful way to show your love to your child – set limits for them and train them to be responsible for their actions, and love them through the process.
  • If you feel yourself getting out of control, put yourself in time out.  You can use the same chair, towel, stool if you’d like, but use it as a tool for yourself.  You can go to your own room if your child is otherwise supervised.  We’re talking about a life lesson here – and an opportunity for your child to see you handle intense emotion, disappointment, fatigue, etc. in a positive way.

OK, that’s enough of that.  Please read, check out blogs, chat amongst yourselves.  Talk about what works for you.  Tap into those with more experience.  Emulate good moms and dads around you.  And most of all, when you think you’ve tried “everything,” find something else to try.  As long as you’re in the game, there is great hope that things will get better…just in time for the next challenge that starts the process all over again.  Happy Parenting!