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Discipline for Toddlers: Making Timeout Work

Parents know that one of the biggest challenges they face is disciplining their young children.  As we say, it’s a constant battle, especially with toddlers.  As daunting a task as it may seem, timeout can be an effective tool against unwanted behaviors.

Before we talk about timeout strategies, remember that most bad behaviors are the result of a child’s frustration or inability to articulate what he/she needs.  Discipline will not necessarily make the unwanted behaviors go away permanently, but will give parents effective ways of dealing with these behaviors when they do occur.  In addition, using timeout from a young age will teach a toddler about limit-setting and set a good foundation for modification of bad behaviors when they are older.

Timeout as a strategy for discipline can work only if parents commit to doing it consistently.  Consistency is key.  Of course, infants and toddlers have to learn how timeout works.  To that end, parents should start with very brief timeouts from an early age, approximately 12 to 18 months.  These episodes should occur immediately after the unwanted behavior and should last no more than 5 to 10 seconds initially.

When parents first introduce timeout as a strategy for discipline, they should plan on placing the child in the timeout chair and holding the child in place either at the waist or the shoulders during the duration of the timeout.  After timeout is firmly established (the child goes to timeout when asked and stays in the timeout chair), parents may increase the intervals to no longer than one minute for every year old.  With longer intervals, set a timer that rings at the end to give the child a concrete end point.  Because toddlers have little sense of time, timeout does not need to be the same length every time; you may vary the length based on the situation or the severity of the bad behavior.

Try to remain calm after the bad behavior.  Avoid lecturing toddlers, because it serves no purpose.  Present a simple, clear message such as saying, “No biting” followed by “timeout.”  It may also be appropriate to present the child with an alternative to the behavior, such as, “Be nice to your brother.”  Ignore any of a child’s whining, pleading or temper tantrums that may occur during the timeout.

When at home, timeout should occur in the same, safe, boring place every time.  Do not allow the use of toys, stuffed animals, pacifiers, or other transitional objects during timeout. I usually recommend a small chair or bench in a hallway.  In multi-story homes, it may be helpful to have a chair on each floor.

Parents should avoid putting children in timeout at the kitchen table, in a bathroom, or in front of a television.  The child’s bedroom or other safe room (with the door closed) may be an acceptable alternative, especially as a backup for an older child who refuses to sit in the designated timeout chair. In addition, an appropriate approach to timeout refusal may be to show the child that you are not starting the timer until he/she sits down.

Children may resume play once they have completed a successful timeout, which means they stayed seated until the timer went off.  Some children respond better to timeout if they receive a “makeup hug” from the parent after the timeout. This provides an additional opportunity to redirect the child to an alternative, more appropriate activity.

If a child immediately repeats the unwanted behavior, then the parent needs to return the child to timeout.  This repetition can get old quickly but is crucial to a successful timeout strategy.  That’s an important reason for keeping timeouts brief (10 to 15 second intervals) when first introducing the concept of timeout. Otherwise, you can waste your whole day putting your child in timeout.  An older child who may be in timeout for minutes rather than seconds is less likely to repeat the behavior immediately, especially if timeout is well established.

Developing a strategy for discipline is one of the hardest jobs parents have.  Remember to be consistent, both with respect to what types of behaviors warrant timeout and making sure that both parents apply and carry out timeouts similarly.  Also, avoid using timeout as a threat; for example, “If you do that again you’re going in timeout.”  Instead, the correct response to the behavior is a timeout without any warnings.  Finally, if you get frustrated, talk to other parents and your child’s doctor.  They may offer creative ideas for dealing with certain behaviors.  Please also visit:

Carlos Armengol, MD FAAP

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