The Secret to Timeouts That Actually Work With Kids

timeout clockWhen it comes to discipline techniques in America, timeout has become increasingly popular ... thanks, no doubt, to the increasing number of us who refuse to follow the spanking route of our parents' generation. Personally, I'm a hardcore fan. It's been my go-to for tantrums for years. So I'm always surprised when parents insist that timeout just doesn't work.

I'd beg to differ. 

Timeout does work! Even better ... if you're doing timeout right, you end up not needing timeout at all. But only if you're doing it right!


Yes, as it turns out, there IS a right and a wrong way to do this.

How do I know? Because for awhile there, I was doing it wrong. And it turns out, I'm not alone.

The folks at Slate did a break-down of timeout no-nos this week, and one thing really jumped out at me:

Another common misconception is that you have to physically isolate a child during a timeout. The important thing is not where your child is but that he doesn’t get to interact with anything interesting, including you. This means that you can initiate timeouts in strollers, cars, chairs, even on the changing table—the key is to withhold attention and eye contact for a certain period of time or as long as the bad behavior persists.

Confession time: for awhile there, we couldn't help it. We interacted with our daughter during timeout.

She'd be in her room, technically isolated from us physically, but when she'd yell down the stairs (her bedroom is on the second floor of our house), we'd answer back, if only to tell her to be quiet. When she'd angrily throw things out of her room, we'd pick them up, or tell her that she shouldn't be throwing things. We'd threaten to add to her time in her room for additional bad behavior.

This went on, I'm ashamed to admit, for months.

I was at my wits' end. My generally pretty good-hearted and fairly well-behaved (I say fairly ... she is still a kid, after all!) daughter was becoming increasingly difficult and at time downright bratty.

And then I had a talk with our school psychologist, whose daughters happen to share a dance class with mine.

Her advice?

Ignore her.


No matter what she does.

I can't say that I was surprised to hear it. I'd been suspicious that we were just feeding her negativity. Negative attention is better than no attention, right?

But it was so hard! She was naughty, how could we NOT do something about it? Wasn't that just rewarding her bad behavior?

My heart told me one thing, but my head told me we just couldn't go on like this. And this woman -- who knows my child and likes her -- had to be on to something.

And here's where the story gets really good. We started ignoring her.

And slowly, the bad behavior disappeared. It wasn't instantaneous -- we had a pattern of behavior based on months of problems to undo here.

But over time, she was better in timeout. Better than that, the need for timeouts decreased.

We're now more than a year out from that harrowing time, and I can't remember the last time I actually used a timeout. Wait, I can. It was March. We're in June now. We've gone three whole months without a timeout in our house.

It's not that she's never naughty, but it's almost never that bad. These days a talk is usually enough. Ironically, getting discipline right enabled us to make discipline almost completely unnecessary.

I think it's hard for us as parents to go against the way we've always done things, to admit that maybe we're making mistakes with our kids. I know it was hard for me.

But if you don't feel like timeouts are working, maybe it's not the timeout. Maybe it's you.

Think about it.

Do you use timeouts with your kids? Do they work?



Image via Dave Stokes/Flickr

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