Time Outs: How To Effectively Teach Your Child Self-Regulation & Personal Accountability

how to use time outs effectively

Do time outs fit into your parenting style?

This post will share how to use time outs effectively, and the ways in which we incorporate them in a way that educates rather than punishes. Positive time outs, as we call them, have revolutionized the way we discipline Liam. They have taught him how to self-regulate and take accountability for his actions… at the age of 3! 

I think it’s safe to say that, before having kids, we’re all high and mighty about how we’ll one day act as parents. I remember one afternoon in TJ Maxx a few years ago (and I’m not proud of this, FYI) when I witnessed a toddler boy have a massive tantrum. Like “roll on the floor, salivating like a rabid dog” massive.

I watched in amazement as his mom proceeded to ignore him, and continued flipping through clearance sweaters. I went from watching the boy flailing on the dirty floor screaming bloody murder to his mother, checking out price tags, and distinctly remember thinking that my son would never act like this in public.

*Cue laughter*

I am now the hot mess mom who scrambles through Trader Joe’s’ tiny aisles with two whiny children. The one who picks her battles and lets her son sit on the dirty post office floor while she’s submitting passport applications, because, well, it is what it is. You only have so many hands.

Now that I’ve prefaced this post, I’ll go on to add that I thought I wouldn’t be the “time out” kind of mom.

My kids just wouldn’t need that kind of disciplining, right? Again, please chuckle. Time outs are one of the many pieces of our chaotic days at home, and this post is about how we tackled them in a way that works for us.

Let me quickly add that what works for us may not work for you, but I can only share what I know from personal experience.  After trying out a few different disciplining styles (from too flexible to too strict), we discovered how to use time outs effectively with our three-year-old and checks off all of the boxes we want to accomplish from time outs. 

Our rule of thumb is this:

time outs are not meant to stress out or upset a child even more. They should be a break from the current situation (for both the child and the parent) and teach the child that this behavior is not acceptable. Time outs are an opportunity to teach your child a valuable lesson. When Liam acts out, I always ask myself: what can be learned from this? How can I best teach my child this lesson? 

When Liam acts out in a negative way, it’s usually because he’s hungry, tired, or overstimulated. We know that punishing him by scolding doesn’t work because it only adds to the overstimulation. We also know that forcing him to stay in his room for a certain amount of time doesn’t work for him and upsets him even more. On the other hand, if we’re too flexible and only gently ask him to stop, he will resume the negative behavior after a mere five second pause.

After some trial and error, we’ve decided that positive time outs work for Liam:

a.) When Liam behaves negatively (whether that means he doesn’t play nicely with his brother, playdate friend, or is just playing rough), we’ll tell him, in a firm, controlled voice, “please go to your room and read a book. When you’ve calmed down, you can continue playing with ____.” The key with this is to be consistent, and use the same tone of voice. This method gives Liam the control to decide on his own when he feels comfortable enough to reenter the room (and that’s empowering for a three-year-old to independently realize) and we’ve noticed that he usually comes back into the room refreshed. He’ll usually say something such as “I’m calm now” or “I feel better” when he leaves his room.

b.) Another time out method we’ve been using is slightly different. I’m a big fan of the book No-Drama DisciplineThe Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind (and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!) and in the book, the authors encourage parents to use time-outs as teaching tools.

As parents, we hope and mistakenly believe that our children are learning a lesson when we give them a three minute time out behind a closed door. That they actually think about it. Really, all they’re doing is resenting us for punishing them during the entire three minutes.

The authors of No-Drama Discipline suggest giving time outs related to the reason for getting a time out in the first place. If your child hits his baby brother, for example, his time out could be to draw a drawing for his brother to apologize. Or think of five nice things to tell his brother as a way to make it up to him. These are just examples, but there are many ways you can use time outs to teach valuable lessons as a result of negative behavior.

Final Thoughts

My final notes regarding how to use time outs effectively is that you know your child better than anyone else in the world and know what will work in terms of discipline. Some parents don’t like the concept of time outs at all, and that’s totally fine. I think only you can figure out what that right balance is. Trust your gut! If you do decide to try these positive time-out methods, though, I’d love to hear if they’re effective with your child!

If you liked the topic of this post and want to read some more,

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Johanna Riehm teaches in the department of Communication and Media at Manhattanville College and in the department of English at Mercy College. She teaches courses in the history of communication, public speaking, and social media, as well as creative and technical writing workshops. Johanna’s work has been featured in Graffiti Literary Magazine, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Bangalore Review, Cactus Heart Press, and the LaMothe Review. She is working on her first longer work, a creative nonfiction novel called We Carved Our Names in Tamarind Trees.

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