Time outs and other strategies

I think there comes a time in every parent’s life where you realise that your children are running you absolutely ragged, and that the time for some kind of behaviour management strategy has arrived. Of course, there may be some parents who are so attuned to their children’s behaviour that there is never a problem, but I don’t know those people.

A popular behaviour management strategy with preschoolers is the time out. Essentially, it involves removing a child from a social situation (like playing in the living room), either physically – putting them in a different room, or symbolically – keeping them on a specific chair or something and not letting them join in the fun.

As a behavioural management strategy it has a mixed reputation. The people who claim that it doesn’t work seem to be the people who try the ‘you stay there and don’t join in until I say so’ approach, which must be bloody difficult to administer if said child keeps hollering at you and getting up from the chair. You could easily spend a whole morning doing that, becoming increasingly frustrated with your child in the process, which kind of defeats the purpose of a time out: to take the heat out of a situation and enable the child to calm themselves down and re-join civilisation.

However, people who use the ‘put said child into their room for a couple of minutes, for everybody to calm down’ time out approach tend to enjoy a slightly better success rate.  But there, too, there is a school of thought that says that it’s cruel and unusual punishment to socially isolate your child when they’re playing up: instead, you should practise a ‘time in’, and respond to naughtiness with endless cuddles and understanding. And hey, if you’re blessed with superhuman levels of patience and never get wound up by your kids, I’m sure that’s a nice approach to take. If you can do that with three year olds you are Mother Teresa reincarnated, as far as I’m concerned.

But like anything, the success of a time out comes down to how you do it. And for the first few months that we tried it, we sucked at it. Basically, we would wait far too long before putting the kids in time out, by which time we’d be so fed up with them that there would be frayed tempers all over the place, and nobody was calming down any time soon. I was starting to think that time outs were nonsense, and then I went to a parenting seminar that fundamentally changed my approach. It was delivered by a woman called Diane Levy, who is a renowned New Zealand family therapist with a fantastic ‘take no crap’ attitude. She’s clearly been a very loving and devoted mother, but she has the not-at-all controversial belief that children actually should respect their parents and do what they’re asked.

What I learned from Diane’s seminar was this:

  1. We talked too much when putting the kids into time outs.
  2. We waited too long before putting the kids into time outs.
  3. We were inconsistent about when we used time outs.

Her recommended approach was as follows:

  1. Ask the child, nicely, to do something: “Joe, can you please help to pick up the toys?”
  2. Count to ten in your head, and if Joe hasn’t started picking up toys (not unusual in our house)…
  3. Tell the child, slightly more directly, to do the thing: “Joe, come and pick up the toys now.” Diane suggests physically getting into the kid’s space a bit at this point, and employing that very ‘I’m not fooling with you now’ eye contact and tone of voice that every parent knows so well.
  4. Count to ten in your head, and if Joe still hasn’t started picking up toys…
  5. Pick up Joe and take him straight to the designated time out room, and shut the door.
  6. After the allocated time out period has passed (and one minute per year of life is usually the golden rule), return to the time out room, open the door, and ask Joe if he’s ready to come and pick up the toys now.
  7. If he says no, shut the door again and wait another couple of minutes, and then repeat step 6. And keep repeating it until he says yes.
  8. If/when he says yes, take him back to the living room and tell him to get cracking. If he mucks around once he’s there, repeat step 5. Continue until the toys are picked up.
  9. Resist the urge to make a song and dance of the toys finally being picked up: say a simple ‘thank you’ and get on with your day. Children should NOT need a huge celebration to commemorate them fulfilling their parents’ basic wishes.

Now, this was revolutionary for me. We had been allowing ourselves to get so wound up by the kids’ disobedience before trying a time out, but with her approach the time from making the first request to actually putting the child in time out is around 30 seconds. Her rationale for this is simple: kids decide almost instantly whether they’re going to obey you. They don’t need five minutes to weigh up the options – their gut response will either be ‘yep, fair enough’ or ‘nope, nice try Mummy’. Allowing your blood pressure to creep upwards while a disobedient child strings you along is an exercise in futility. And to borrow a ruling strategy from Nigel Latta, my other favourite Kiwi parenting guru, you don’t want to make their problem (the need to pick up toys) your problem (you getting annoyed, or you giving in and picking up the toys yourself).

I later bought a copy of Diane’s great parenting book Of course I love you… now go to your room!, which has advice for dealing with children up to the teenaged years. It’s easily the best book of its kind that I’ve read. Her approach is the closest I’ve found to what was pretty much seen as normal parenting when I was growing up. Here’s a link to buy a hard copy of the book, and here’s a Kindle version. And if you’re in New Zealand you might be lucky, like me, and find it for sale in a charity shop.

Like anything, some great ideas need tweaking to better meet your own situation, so I freely adapted Diane’s approach slightly. I inserted a ‘warning’ stage in between step 4 and step 5, where I say “If you don’t get started by the time I count to ten, you’re going to time out”, which was effective when the kids were two. Now, as rebellious three year olds I’m finding that they’re taking the mickey out of this particular adaptation: endlessly waiting until I’m at “nine” before acting. So I’ve largely cut out that stage.

The other change I made concerned what was said on the way to time out, in step 5. Diane advocates no lecturing – it doesn’t make any difference to the kid, and it just ends up with you venting – and no talking at all (she believes that the child already knows what they’ve done), but I’ve preferred to say a very brief sentence during the wall to the bedroom: “Joe, you’re going into time out because you wouldn’t help to pick up the toys”. Because we started this when they were two, I wanted to be crystal clear that they could link cause and effect.

The process above is designed for disobedience, and not for full-scale naughtiness that requires instant intervention. Every family will have their own list of capital crimes – ours includes any physical contact (and not much else, really, as we’ve been fortunate that the kids don’t bite or anything like that). In the case of a heinous offence it’s an instant time out, with no warnings given, but with the same explanatory sentence on the way. Hattie had two of these today, once for giving Tristan a smack and once for kicking me. In my opinion you’re mad if you don’t react to that kind of thing with a swift response – and when she was sufficiently contrite she had to return and apologise (we now tend to make them apologise after naughtiness-related time outs as well).

Diane’s approach, with my customisations, has done wonders for us, and the wheels really only fall off our parental wagon when we mistakenly relax and don’t follow it. Sometimes we have to visit the child a few times in their room before they’re ready to rejoin polite society, but that’s OK: Joe was determined that he didn’t want to brush his teeth this morning, and I think I opened his door, asked him if he wanted to brush them, and then shut the door again four times before he agreed that he was really to do it – I gave him a cuddle, took him to the bathroom, and brushed his teeth, and then we got on with our morning.

The reason that this approach works is that you just don’t have time to get cross and frustrated. It is so easy to stay calm when you’re not being eyeballed by a stubborn, non-compliant child. I honestly don’t think I had much of a quick temper until six months or so ago, but now I’m quite alarmed at how quickly I can seemingly boil over. It’s like I will be able to tolerate something for a while – like, “I’m fine… I’m fine… I’m fine… I’m fine…” – and then suddenly I’m raging and shouting. And that is not the kind of parent I want to be, under any circumstances. I am not a shouty person as a general rule, and I’ve spent most of my life viewing people who shout and rage as slightly ridiculous, since they seemed so out of control. And the thing that really bothers me about it is that I sometimes can’t actually feel myself getting annoyed – I can go from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye.

And that brings me to the “and other strategies” part of this blog post. Because time outs are great, but they’re not always appropriate: I’m thinking of the endless, continuous (with my kids, anyway) times when children are just being bloody annoying. Things like endlessly fidgeting while you’re trying to brush their hair and refusing to listen to you when you ask them to sit still, to give you a recent example (which did end up in me losing my cool). I had one very rotten day a couple of weeks ago (it began with the hair episode and got worse), and I was so miserable and upset that evening when I reflected on my ‘performance’ as a parent. The thing that struck me was that, from Hattie’s perspective, I was largely putting up with her fidgeting, tacitly allowing her to do it, until the point when I was suddenly furious with her. Such mixed messages for a three year old to process, and such parental guilt as a result (and I am not somebody who regularly feels much parental guilt, so this was big for me). It just made me realise that I had to change how I dealt with the minor annoyances that cumulatively have the potential to drive me mental. I mean, who could be cross with these two cuties, right?



My answer was to write myself the following strategy, and I’m very pleased to say that I’m following it with a good degree of success. And I did actually write it down, to formalise it, with the following title.

Strategies to avoid angry Mummy

  1. Morning routine: breakfast, then nappies, then choose clothes and get dressed, then brush teeth, then do Hattie’s hair – and no playing until those steps have all been covered. This is because getting organised in the morning was a frequent source of frustration when the children would muck around, particularly if we were due somewhere.
  2. Ask twice and then retire – to another room, or to read my book. This is my ‘don’t let them get to me’ strategy. I realised that I can choose to get wound up, or I can give up temporarily and do something else until things have calmed down. I use this in conjunction with a breezy “Well, we can’t watch TV/go to the park/whatever until you’ve brushed your teeth/let me brush your hair/whatever, so let me know when you’re ready” statement. I’ve found that sitting and reading my book is the most effective approach, as something about me being there but not actually engaging with them tends to hit home, but if they’re really on the verge of pissing me off I will go to my room and chill out there for a while, with my door shut.
  3. Swift time outs for misbehaviour – as per Diane Levy’s approach, without the warning stage.
  4. Stick to the game plan for eating, TV privileges, etc. This is my ‘don’t confuse them by veering away from what we’ve said will happen’ strategy: things like “It’s fine if you don’t eat your dinner, but that’s all there is tonight and you don’t get anything else if you don’t eat it”, and “No, you’re not watching TV now, but you can watch it when I’m making dinner later”.
  5. Tristan to take the evening shift. I become a pretty crappy parent from 7.01pm, so wherever possible I send in Tristan to deal with any bedtime issues, like refusing to go sleep. He’s more patient than me in the evenings.
  6. Put myself into time out if necessary.

Of course, the best strategies in the world are sometimes no match for a couple of bright, sparky, determined three year olds. Today I think each child had at least seven time outs, for a whole host of misdemeanours. But I’m fine with that, because not once did I raise my voice or lose my temper – and all I can control is my own behaviour. And I know that I am pretty good at sticking to my guns, and it must literally be once in a blue moon where I can be talked around if I’ve said no to something, but the kids still try their luck (endlessly, it seems). Like I mentioned in my last blog post, at this age kids seem to have limitless reserves of mischief, and any opportunity to be contrary is eagerly embraced. I feel like I have to remind Hattie and Joe that I’m actually the one who decides stuff, and not them, several times a day. But I am confident that the penny will drop eventually. Hopefully before they’re ready to start university…


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2 thoughts on “Time outs and other strategies

  1. Thanks jacq, this has reminded me of the Diane levy seminar which I also went to but I thought I was having issues then with my 1 year olds! Ha ha!! 3 is so much more interesting of an age. We’ve been doing time outs and like you say, if you are consistent and stay calm it really does work. So thanks for sharing and I will be sticking to my guns from now on.


    1. I can totally relate – you really need the perfect information at the perfect time, eh? I was also not quite at the right stage when she gave that talk, but luckily I stumbled on her book when I really needed to know what to do, and it all made sense then. To be honest I found three harder than two in a lot of ways, but hang in there, it’ll get better!

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