child caring

Has time run out for timeout?

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / December 9, 1999

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Karyn, not quite 3, cries or covers her face when her mother puts her in timeout. When her two minutes are up, she is remorseful, apologetic, and anxious for Mom's hugs and kisses.

Her 6-year-old sister is another story. Kaitlyn often refuses to go to the designated timeout spot on the bottom of the stairs. When she does go, she whines the whole time. Afterward, she stomps around, complains bitterly about the unfairness of it, and typically repeats the behavior that put her there.

It's not surprising that timeout is not used often in this house; Karyn and Kaitlyn's parents wisely recognize that their preschooler is so sensitive, she feels shamed by timeout, while Kaitlyn is so strong-willed, she turns it into a control issue. What is surprising is that psychologists and parent educators say timeout may not belong in your house, either.

Since it appeared decades ago as a replacement to spanking, timeout has been embraced by millions of American families. Unfortunately, overuse and misuse are making it less effective.

Here's how timeout typically works: As soon as a child misbehaves, we remove him to a set location, usually a chair or the stairs, and leave him for a short time, typically one minute per year of age. The idea behind it is that separation as a consequence of misbehavior will help him learn to modify behavior and that there's value in taking time to regroup and regain control.

It sounds simple, which is why it's popular, but it's not a panacea. ''In certain situations, with certain children, timeout can escalate a problem or create a new one,'' says parent educator Linda Braun, executive director of Families First Parenting Programs in Cambridge.

Timeout does work, she says, but only if it's used sparingly and for aggressive behaviors like hitting. It does not work for habitual misbehavior such as not cleaning up when told to or not getting dressed on time. (For behaviors like that, praise and positive reinforcement such as sticker charts may work better.)

Temperament factor

Temperament has a lot to do with whether timeout will work. A child who is introverted, for instance, may be able to regroup only by having quiet time to himself in his own room, where he feels comforted and safe. Going to her room may work for a child like Kaitlyn, too, but for different reasons.

''A strong-willed, independent child has such a need to feel in control, she turns timeout into a power struggle,'' says psychologist Debbie Weinstock-Savoy, who leads parent workshops on discipline for WarmLines Parent Resources in Newton.

''The key for her isn't just being sent to her room; it's that you say, 'Calm yourself down and let me know when you feel ready to play again.' That puts control in her hands,'' Weinstock-Savoy says. ''Saying, 'Sit here, I'll tell you when you're ready,' takes it away. It enrages her.''

A child with an extroverted temperament may not do well in her room or in timeout, says internationally known parent educator and author Jean Illsley Clarke. ''She may need to talk it out,'' she says. ''She may need you to say, 'Stand here in front of me and tell me what's going on.'''

Children like Karyn who take parental disapproval to heart aren't good candidates, either. ''She internalizes so much, she thinks she is a terrible, awful person,'' says Weinstock-Savoy.

If timeout lowers a child's self-esteem, it may be because she is not yet developmentally able to make the connection between cause and effect, between her misbehavior and timeout. ''If they aren't clear what got them into timeout, they can become overly anxious, afraid to speak up or ask,'' says Weinstock-Savoy.

That's especially true in group care, and it's a reason early childhood educator Susanne Zimmerer discourages it at the Compass School in Powell, Ohio, where she is the director. ''Kids end up getting labeled by peers or labeling themselves: 'I'm a kid who gets a lot of timeout; I must be bad.' That can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,'' she says.

For timeout to work, she says, there has to be lots of preparation for it, because children need the misbehavior spelled out and they need to know what to do instead.

Identify the behavior

Braun calls this the setup: ''Identify a specific behavior you want to tackle, and talk about it at a quiet, calm time: 'I notice you and your sister play nicely most of the time, but once in a while, you want a toy she's playing with and you grab it and then she gets angry, and before you know it, you're hitting. Can you think of other ways to handle that?' ''

Even if parents remember to have this conversation, they often forget the follow-up that comes after a child offers an alternative: ''What happens if you forget to do that? What if you do hit?'' That's crucial, says Braun, because it gives us the opening we need: '' 'If you forget, that tells me you're really angry, you can't control your body, and you need help to calm down. That's when I'll say, ''You need a timeout to help you calm down.'' ' ''

There also needs to be a second follow-up sometime later: ''You were really angry this morning, weren't you? And you forgot about not hitting, huh? That's why we did a timeout. I'm glad you went to timeout, because you calmed yourself down. I bet next time you'll be able to calm down without timeout.''

This can make a big difference, says Braun: ''It feels like you're on his side, that you're trying to be helpful, not mean and punitive.''

Ideally, timeout is a teaching tool for a child to learn to self-regulate. If you're doing timeout over and over for the same behavior, that means it isn't working. ''Try something else,'' says Braun.

Something else might be a variation on the theme that Clarke calls ''time-in,'' which is the basis of her book, ''Time-In: When Time-Out Doesn't Work'' (Parenting Press, Seattle).

When you remove a child from the scene, sit with her, rubbing her back or talking her down: ''It's OK to be upset. I'll wait with you until you feel better.'' Clarke says that when a child misbehaves, he's very upset. ''Putting him in timeout feels like he's being abandoned,'' she says.

The Four A's

Because not even this will work all the time with all children, parents also need a repertoire of other strategies. Clarke offers the Four A's:

- Ask. When a child clamors to do something taboo, instead of repeating, ''That's no; stop whining, stop nagging,'' ask instead: ''What would you do if you could do that?'' By getting her wish in fantasy, hopefully she'll think it through and decide she doesn't want to do it; be satisfied with pretending (it really does work); or have a response that enables you to compromise: ''You're really tired of sitting in this restaurant, aren't you? Can you hold out a few more minutes while I eat? Then we can go to the park across the street while everyone else finishes.''

- Act. Interrupting a behavior is more likely to get a child's attention than almost anything else we do. Instead of picking the child up or repeating the rule again - ''I told you not to throw indoors!'' - matter-of-factly pick up what he threw, put it out of reach, and say, ''Since you forgot the rule about throwing, you can't have this toy until tomorrow.'' Clarke tells parents not to focus on the tantrum he will now throw. ''That strokes it. Redirect behavior instead: 'This toy is finished for now. What else can we do?' ''

- Attend. This means noticing and anticipating behavior - for instance, that she gets whiny every day at 4 p.m. and squabbles with her sister. Is she hungry? Tired? Overstimulated? It also means teaching a child to attend to the results of her behavior: ''If he breaks or spills and you clean it up every time, there's no natural consequence,'' says Clarke. ''There's a lesson to learn: 'If I spill something, I help clean it up.' ''

- Amend. Children 4 and older can atone for behaviors with more than an empty ''I'm sorry'' through clenched teeth. Ask her: ''Your sister's feelings are hurt; she's crying. What can you do?'' This is a time-consuming strategy, Clarke warns: ''You have to be in the mood to be patient.'' Don't do it frequently, either; it becomes boring and meaningless. Separation as consequence Of course, the ultimate timeout is not for a child but for us. When your anger is escalating and he can see it, it's an excellent chance to model what timeout is all about: ''I'm so upset, I'm going to another room to have a few quiet minutes so I can calm down. When I come back, I'll be ready to talk to you again.'' Removing yourself when he misbehaves is such a dramatic example of separation as consequence that it's not lost on many children: ''I don't like to play with someone who tells me to shut up, so I can't play anymore. I can play again when you ask in a nice voice.'' Ignore him until he speaks nicely. When he does, acknowledge it, says Weinstock-Savoy: ''I like that voice so much better. Now I can hear you!

for parents

Timeout may work when a child is 18 months, may not work between 2 and 3, and then may work again when he's older. That's because you're bumping into a normal developmental period when autonomy asserts itself in ''you can't make me'' ways.

A variation on timeout is to separate siblings: "You two can't play with each other for the next half-hour. You each need to find something else to do." You can also give timeout to a toy if play is getting out of hand.

Timeout rarely works for children 7 or older.

When you first impose a timeout with a toddler and he refuses to stay put, keep returning him, saying, "The timeout doesn't start until you sit quietly." Offer to sit with him. If this turns into a 45-minute battle every time you try it, however, don't keep repeating it. He may not be a good candidate for timeout.
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