During an epic meltdown, it can be hard to reason with your toddler or preschooler. But how do you reach them when they are not in control of themselves? For many families, time-outs have become a frequently used parenting tool for exhausted parents. But, do they work? Or is there a better solution? This week in Triple P, we look at common problems with time-outs, as well as offer alternative tips for effectively managing challenging behavior.
The method of responding to challenging behavior or upsets with a “time-out” was first introduced in the 1950s by Charles Ferster. According to the Center for Parenting Education, time-outs were considered a “revolutionary discipline tool,” and a much gentler option than resorting to corporal punishment, such as spanking.
So just what is a time-out?
- In a time-out, you calmly and matter-of-factly remove your child from the situation.
- You tell your child they must sit quietly alone for a designated amount of time. (1 minute per year of life is a good rule of thumb)
- You ignore any misbehavior during the time-out, such as kicking or calling out to you. (This is the hardest part for parents)
What could go wrong?
Like many parenting tools, time-outs are not as simple as they seem, and chances are if your young child is already upset, they may not easily cooperate with a time-out. A time-out is also going to be unsuccessful if:
- Your child decides when their time-out is done: “You can come out of your room when you can behave yourself.”
- Time-outs are used inconsistently or as a “threat.”
- Your young child won’t stay in time-out.
- You continue to argue with or talk to your child during time-out.
Here are some other points to consider about time-outs:
- Young children may misinterpret a time-out as abandonment or punishment.
- A young child who is feeling scared or anxious is unlikely to calm down when asked to sit alone.
- A time-out doesn’t allow for a child to talk through their feelings or learn words to express their feelings with the parent.
- Time-outs do not teach your child the desired behavior you’d like to see.
Think about your goals
There is some good news here! As science and research progresses, experts are consistently finding more effective methods for calming down an upset child or preventing unwanted behavior. If you’d like to try an alternative to a time-out, first start with setting a goal.
If your child is doing something you don’t want them to do—let’s say your preschooler is screaming and hitting you when you say no to buying her a toy at the store—you have two goals to address: A short-term goal and long-term goal.
- Short-term: In the short-term goal, you want to quickly and effectively stop screaming and hitting.
- Long-term: In the long-term goal, you want to teach your child that having a meltdown in a store is not an appropriate response to being told “no.” In this goal, you can also teach your child the skills they need to manage themselves when they are feeling upset or anxious and practice words they can use to tell you how they feel.
There are going to be times when your short-term goal requires removing your child from the situation because they are “causing a scene” or are a danger to others. But instead of a time out, you can reframe this as a “time-in.” Here are the steps:
- Remove your child calmly from the situation.
- Find a place where your child can calm down and think more rationally (for example, in the car or out of the toy store).
- Remember that we don’t have access to the rational part of our brains until we have calmed down.
- Stay with your child and help them to calm down. Use deep breathing, quiet music, or other techniques you have found help your child calm.
- Offer positive feedback when they have quieted.
- Talk about what they might say and do next time.
Young children respond well to comfort. When possible, find a neutral place to calm down. Some ideas include:
- Going outside to look at the clouds.
- Sitting in a swing.
- Sitting on your lap or in a rocking chair together.
- Going on a walk.
- Blowing bubbles.
- Getting a drink of water.
You’ll notice that in all the above suggestions, you are with your child. This sends the message to your child that you are there to help and comfort them even when they are experiencing challenging emotions.
If you notice when they start to get upset, or know that certain situations are hard for them, you may be able to prevent a strong reaction with these comfort strategies. Teach your child to recognize their feelings when they start to get frustrated, and use their words to let you know. Then you can work together to calm.
The best course of action can simply be taking a break from the action. If your toddler is getting upset because their blocks tower keeps falling over, help them recognize their frustration, then suggest going outside to blow bubbles as a calming strategy. If you don’t catch the frustration before the strong reaction, use the opportunity when they are calm to talk about how they responded unacceptably and what they can do instead in the future. Remember that young children don’t intentionally misbehave. They are learning the skills to cope with situations that don’t go how they want them to go. Just like the rest of us, they need to learn to regulate their emotions in challenging situations when they start to get frustrated and before they react inappropriately with a meltdown.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com). Parenting Now! is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now! please visit their website (https://parentingnow.org/) or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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