While parenting can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences, it can also be one of the most challenging. It’s normal for children to test limits and consequences for their behaviors, and it’s normal for them to feel angry or upset on occasion. During these times, timeouts can be a parent’s most effective teaching tool — if used properly.

Timeouts provide a way to disrupt and decrease undesirable behavior. Whether a child is hitting a sibling or having a temper tantrum, some time away from the troublesome situation can help a child calm down. While timeouts can be used to punish children, their real value comes when you instead use them as an opportunity to teach.

A timeout is used to interrupt negative behaviors mid-action and gives children a chance to regain self-control. Once the child has regained control, parents can use the opportunity to talk to their child about different ways to handle the situation.

Most parents think of timeouts as a tool primarily for young children, but it can be effective for all members of the family, even teens and parents who need to calm down in order to resolve problems.

To make the most of timeouts:

Be clear and firm in defining a timeout. Let your child know ahead of time what type of behavior will get a timeout and for how long. For some children, the perfect antidote will be sitting in a chair or spending time alone in a room for the same number of minutes as their age in years. Consider your child’s age and temperament to create a timeout that fits his or her needs. It’s helpful to have the timeout area where the child can be easily monitored.
Be consistent. This is probably the area where parents make the most mistakes. Once you determine how timeouts will work for your child, stick to that recipe. If they involve one warning before a timeout, be sure to give only one warning. If they involve a preset amount of time sitting in a specific place, use a timer and use that predetermined location. Leave no room for your child to negotiate the terms of the timeout or argue with you. Consistency also means working with your child’s other caregivers to be sure you all follow the same timeout procedures for the same behaviors.
Make it a true timeout. Don’t speak to your child or give him or her any attention during the timeout. Continued interaction can escalate the child’s negative behaviors and negate the timeout’s ability to defuse the situation.
Stay calm. Parents will achieve better results when they discipline with a firm communication style that is delivered in what I call a warm or friendly tone. If children see that the parents are getting frustrated or angry, it tells them their actions do have some control and tempts them to push further.
If your child continues troubling behaviors despite consistent use of timeouts, talk to your pediatrician or child therapist. They can help you rule out possible problems and assist in applying other behavior modification techniques.

As published in the October 2005 Edition of the Holmen Courier and Onalaska Community Life.