Little boy facing a wallTimeout: A Few Changes Makes it Work

Every day, no matter where I am I hear parents say, “Stop it now or get a timeout!”

After 18 years of teaching parenting and raising two kids, in my opinion, timeout as it’s being used now, doesn’t work well for young children ages 1-5. (This article doesn’t apply to safety issues-that’s a whole other topic.)

Years ago, before there were cell phones…yes, there was a time before cell phones, LOL, timeout was originally designed as a time…out for both parent and child. It was created so both parent and child could take a short break, get calmer, and then speak about how to resolve the situation. That’s not the way timeout is being used today. These days timeout is being used as the “acceptable” way we punish our children.

When parents first begin to use timeout, they get down to their child’s eye level, they say nice words and gently escort their child to timeout. Then, as a child approaches ages two, three, or four…well…things began to change.

One reason I think this happens is because adults use reasoning and logical thinking to understand situations, they expect children to understand and apply that process, too. The truth is young children don’t develop the ability to use logic until around age 7.

Since ages 2, 3, and 4 are the first time parents are dealing with developmental defiance, when a child’s defiance, meets a parent’s reaction, it can cause an emotional collision.

See if this sounds familiar.

* A child is defiant and does something or refuses to listen or cooperate.

* The parent says, “That’s it you’re going to timeout!”

* The child quickly switches from defiance to crying or screaming.

* The parent can’t think clearly due to all the crying. She becomes confused about what to do next, which makes her react.

* Her reaction causes her to yell and increases her intensity.

* Underneath the confusion the parent unconsciously hopes that her yelling will be the magic key that stops all the crying and fussing so her child learn not to do this again.

The child has a reaction, too.

* It’s difficult for children to process their crying, your yelling and learning all at the same time.

* Since they don’t have the ability to reason yet, they pick up clues about what’s happening from your body language and tone of voice.

* They use their immature reasoning and think, “When I cry or don’t do as I’m told, I’m sent away from my parent to ‘a land called timeout.’ ”

No real learning occurs in “the land called timeout,” just punishment. The child hasn’t learned what she’s supposed to do instead of what she did.

Yes, we all have the long chat with our child after timeout, but after living through a ton of emotions, most children will agree to almost anything to get out of “the land called timeout.” And then we’re astounded when 2 hours later she does it again. So what can be done?

I think the best way to use timeout for younger children is to match the concept with their developmental needs. Here are 3 things I believe will help make timeout a better fit for your child.

1. An emotional child learns best when information you need to tell her is scaled down to just a few words, and the words are something the child can understand even through the tears. You want to use words like sit down, no hitting, or use your words, versus that’s not appropriate or a long drawn out lecture about why they shouldn’t do what they’ve done.

2. IMHO, I believe, it’s a better fit for a young child if timeout is much shorter than 1 minute per age. Having a child sit in timeout for a shorter period of time takes advantage of what I call “child time”, the true amount of time your young child can stay focused on the issue at hand and hear you when she’s emotional.

3. After sitting in timeout parents need to have their child repeat the exact situation again. The words “try it again” can be said so a child learns what you expect her to do, instead of just be punished for what she did.

The whole process sounds like this:

M: Have a seat—No scratching!

Have your child sit for only 10 – 60 seconds, while you stay very close to enforce that she stay seated.

Then say, “Please get up and try this again. Ask sister for the doll the way you know you’re supposed to, with no scratching this time”

If the child doesn’t get it, repeat the process.

Interested in the step-by-step details of how to use this method? Go to, and look at seminar #2 or #3.

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding and The Authentic Parent Series. Go to to download two free chapters from her book and learn about other Proactive Parenting programs. Find Sharon on Twitter and Facebook.

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