One way to discourage poor behavior in a toddler is timeouts. This technique is used to stop the child from continuing whatever wrong behavior he is doing but at the same time not to reward the child for that wrong behavior. But timeouts really need to be done right in order to work.
The important part of a timeout is that it is meant to take the child away from the wrong activity and place her in a boring setting for a specified amount of time. Timeouts are unlikely to be effective before the age of two and in order for them to be effective at all, the parent must handle the situation properly.
In her book, “Starting Out Right,” Dr. Linda Durrell describes what a parent should do to make timeouts effective for a young child:
1. Find a boring place. Immediately after your child commits an unwanted behavior, put him in a boring place. At first you probably will have to hold your 2-year-old down in a chair or crib. The important thing is the setting should be boring — no toys, no friends, no interesting things to see or do.
A timeout doesn’t absolutely require a separate room. When your son does something intolerable at the beach, simply take him aside, away from toys and friends, and make him sit still. If possible, face him away from the ongoing activity or anything interesting to watch.
2. Explain the ground rules. Say, “I can’t let you do that. You have to stay here in timeout for two (or three, four, five) minutes. You have to be quiet to come out. I can’t let you out if you’re screaming. Screaming will not get you out.”
3. Set the time limit. The number of minutes in timeout should equal the age of your child: two minutes for a 2-year-old, 2½ minutes for a 2½-year-old. Hold your 2-year-old for the whole two minutes, counting out loud the first few times all the way to 120. After the first three or four timeouts, you can count silently, but let your child see your lips move. After several more experiences you can count to yourself. For older children you can time them by setting a kitchen timer. You may have to remind a younger child: “Why did Mommy take you away from the play group? Because you pushed.” Don’t stand outside the room and talk to anyone, since your attention will take away from the boredom and possibly reward screaming.
4. No release without silence. When time is up, wait for silence before letting your child out. This is very important because you don’t want your screaming child to think that his screaming got him out. Wait for four or five seconds of relative calm from 2-year-old children, gradually increasing it to 10 seconds by the time they are 3 years old. When you first start using timeout, you may have to remind your 2-year-old after 120 seconds: “Remember, you have to be quiet before I can let you out.” For older children, don’t say a thing — just wait for silence.
5. Repeat timeout as needed. If your child resumes the unwanted behavior after being let out, say, “Oh, you’re not really ready to come out. You have to go back into timeout.” Repeat the entire procedure again.
Especially persistent children can cycle through four or five timeouts in a row before getting the point.
However trying this might sound, the 20 minutes it takes is preferable to a whole day or night of outright warfare.
One of the things the timeout is teaching your child is that you will follow through on what you tell him. He will learn that if you say he must stop a certain behavior, you will take action to see that he does stop. He will believe your words and you really will score a big victory!
Cynthia Martin is the founder of the First Teacher program and now director of Parenting Matters Foundation. The foundation publishes newsletters for parents, caregivers and grandparents. Reach Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 681-2250.