What I have seen over the course of my career is that parents do not use time out in an appropriate or effective way. What frequently happens is a parent-child battle and much drama occurs during the transition from direction to go to time out and the act of the child going to time out. Both the child and the parent frequently end up arguing and much heightened negative emotion occurs. This is not how time out should be used. This use of time out in this manner frequently creates more anger and animosity. Positive results are sometimes obtained, but many times the child keeps misbehaving. There must be a better way and there is.
The better way is to conceptualize time out as a “break in the action” similar to time out used by coaches in a basketball game. This is in direct contrast of viewing time out as a punishment. When a coach needs to give players feedback the coach calls a “time out” to talk with the group of players. Positive and negative feedback is given based upon what is being observed in the players’ game. If a coach only gave negative feedback during the time-outs, players would stop wanting to huddle up. A good coach gives both negative and positive feedback in order to help players learn from their mistakes, to help them recognize when they are doing things right, and to help maintain their inspiration to do well. The “break in the action” approach is very effective in spots and is also very effective intervention at home.
In your household, I recommend that you try this positive use of time out to help your child step back from the situation and reflect upon what he or she is doing. The steps to the appropriate use of this time out are as follows:
Early in my career in the 1980s, I learned to use this positive use of time out while working with out-of-control teenagers at Capistrano By The Sea Hospital in Dana Point, CA. Our time out was called “the bench.” When directed to the bench, the residents were taught to stop what they were doing, walk silently to the bench, and sit down. Staff then came over to them in order to give them feedback on their behavior. We learned that it was very effective to send the youth to the bench for both positive and negative behaviors. In fact, we tried to send youth to the bench or many more positive behaviors than negative. When a resident was doing something well, we would tell them to go the bench. We would then compliment them on their behavior and send them on their way. When we needed to give them more negative feedback, they were much more receptive to our instructions since we created such a positive environment. With this use of frequent positive feedback, we greatly increased compliance to instructions and appropriate behavior overall. We were able to effectively work with residents that previously had not responded to any teacher or parent intervention to date.
When you are implementing this process, make sure that you send your child to time out for many more positive behaviors than negative. This will greatly enhance your child’s willingness to be positive. Of course, sometimes you do have to take control and send your child to time out for negative behavior. You are doing this because your child needs to learn proper behavior. When you do have to send the child to time out for misbehavior, do not get caught up in the drama of it all. What is meant by this is, if your child begins to argue, stick to your procedures. Verbal battles will not help. Calmly restate your expectations and begin your counting. If you have to carry your child to time out, minimize any talking and remain calm. If you have to scream, go behind closed doors and scream to yourself. Be aware that changing behavior takes time. Be very gentle with any holding you may have to do. If your child is too big to carry, you may need to withdraw any of your attention until your child is willing to comply. Always, treat your child with dignity.
When you follow this process as directed, your household will become much more positive. I have seen these procedures work time and time again in inpatient, outpatient, school, and home settings. In my own home, the procedures have worked amazingly well. As I have found, you will also find that you will not have to do hardly any time outs for negative behavior as time passes. I rarely have to use time out for any misbehavior in my own household. I still try to constantly tell my own children that I am proud of them, that I like what they are doing, and that I love them.
Some people may say that all this praise and positive attention will hurt the child’s intrinsic motivation to do well. I personally think that way of thinking is nonsense. We all like to be recognized for what we do and children are no different. Most children want to please those around them. Giving you children genuine praise and positive feedback for what they do will not damage their intrinsic motivation. Instead, they will become more motivated. I encourage you to do your best to recognize positive efforts no matter how small they may be. By taking this positive, but firm, approach to parenting, you will find that your children will respond in a very satisfying way.