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Why Time Out Doesn’t Work: Common Mistakes Parents Make

Are you one of those parents who has read all the books, done the programs, seen the therapists only to still keep seeing the same bad behaviors again & again? Find out the common mistakes to avoid.

Are you one of those parents who has read all the books, done the programs, seen the therapists only to still keep seeing the same bad behaviors again and again? For 25 years as a Child and Family Psychologist, I have watched parents keep making the same mistakes that do more to hurt them than help them. I want to help you by sharing some of those with you.

Mistake 1: USING THE CHILD’S ROOM FOR PUNISHMENT. It’s the old stand by: "Go to your room", but does it really teach anything or just get the child out of our face for a bit? There are 2 problems with the child’s room. These 2 problems come to me from interviewing a lot of kids about this as well as my own memories of discipline my parents used.

Problem 1 with the room: THE CHILD’S ROOM IS COMFORT-HOME BASE.

First, no matter how angry the child gets about being sent to his/her room, the room is the comfort zone. I don't care if you only have a bed and a dresser in that room. It is still the child's home base and turf and thus, a comfort zone. I've had a lot of kids tell me that within 5 minutes of being sent to their room, the child will lie down and go to sleep or look out the window etc. No matter what it is that they've done, once in the room, you can ask them why they are there or what bad behavior they did to get there and they will tell you that they don't know. My question is, how can someone possibly learn anything at all on a permanent basis if they are so comfortable that they can't remember what it is they did in the first place? Discipline has to have in it little outside stimulation so that the child remembers and learns.

Think about when you were younger and got sent to your room. I remember that I cried for about 5-10 minutes and then settled in either laying down in my comfy bed or playing with something. After getting out of my room, it was an average of 1 hour to 1 day later that I would repeat the same behavior that got me in trouble to begin with. A headache for my parents and no learning for me! Did my parents do this because they knew it wouldn't work? Of course not! They did it because it had been done that way forever and that's the way they learned to do discipline! The idea here isn't to look at what you’re doing wrong and branding yourself as a "bad parent." The idea is to learn what doesn't work and change it to what does!

Problem 2 with the room: THE CHILD’S ROOM HAS EVERYTHING IN IT THE CHILD LIKES.

I have talked to some kids who brag about the fact that when Mommy or Daddy put them in the room for bad behavior that they just, "play with their toys." After talking with parents I find that the child has everything short of an amusement park in his room. This is normal for our society! When a child has unsupervised access to toys, games, T.V. , video games, etc., this is not punishment anymore. It almost becomes a reward. The only thing the child has lost is the freedom to play in other rooms or outside. Usually, if you ask the child about this, you'll find that the small loss of freedom is soothed rather well by the toys in the room. In this situation, again, the child has forgotten what got him in there and there is "no sweat off his back" about the behavior. No learning again!

MISTAKE #2: TOO MUCH CUSHY FOR THE TUSHY! USING A CUSHY CHAIR FOR TIME OUT.

The rule of thumb here is, if you wouldn’t mind sitting in it, neither will your child! I've met kids who, for convenience sake, serve time out in cushy, living room chairs and time out is really not that big of a deal to them. The bottom line here is, if you use it, you want time out to be a big deal. It may be more of a challenge for you and become louder and harder to deal with if time out is boring, uncomfortable and hard, but if time out is too comfortable, you will be doing it until the kid is 27 before you get any real results! The goal is to make whatever punishment you use undesirable so the child doesn't want to be in it to create permanence and to stop bad behavior and teach good behavior. We can talk more about what a good chair looks like. Safe is good, but more is necessary! 

MISTAKE #3: TIME LIMITS

Many people have a different view of what is reasonable for time out time limits. My view is based on observing what worked and what didn't with families I have worked with. Most programs suggest 1 minute per year that the child is old. In the years that I have been doing this, I don't think I've ever seen this work. In fact, for kids older than 6, I've never seen 6-10 minutes work. After all, they are sitting for longer periods of time than that in school by then. I’ve seen more families give up on using time out at all before these approaches worked. Most of the time, I hear about kids babbling and moaning and groaning the entire time they are in the chair and when that limit ends, they connect their moaning and groaning as the reason they have gotten out of the chair. This solidifies the moaning and groaning as a permanent behavior for that child and totally defeats the whole process and makes the parent’s job harder next time!

Children are also very good at using reverse psychology. I've seen kids sit the 10 minutes knowing full well that they will do the behavior again and also knowing that when they keep doing the behavior, eventually, their parents won't try time out anymore. They figure the parents will think it doesn't work. I've talked with kids about this and it amazes me how kids are able to do this. I've got parents in my office one minute telling me how innocent and unknowing the child is and can't we give another chance? Meanwhile I've got the kids in my office telling me out loud, how 10 minutes is a breeze, how they have Mom and Pop wrapped around their little finger and they know how to wait it out until Mom and Pop get tired because they have so many times before.

If you are going to do time out, I would tell the child that it will be when you decide the child can get out. Add on that if there is whining or any other mouth, you will need at least 15 minutes of solid silence before you will say stop.

The idea here is that the parents never let their child know how to predict the stability of the consequence. In other words, if your child thinks that 10 minutes of his day is all that he needs to give up, he might be great at sitting for that and the behavior might be a risk worth taking. If, however, your child doesn't know whether the time will go up from there, your chances of getting rid of bad behavior increase tremendously. This should only be used with kids who have ability to remember and not be used with kids under 5 years old.

Obviously, don't be ridiculous about this. It isn't an excuse to leave your kid in a chair for an hour while you catch up on "Desperate Housewives or go shopping. I am referring to appropriate, logical discipline here.

MISTAKE #4: USING AS MUCH HEAVY EMOTION/YELLING AS POSSIBLE TO MAKE THE CHILD BEHAVE.

Normal parents yell when they get angry. It's a human response. The only problem with this is that it shows your child your weak spots. When your child is misbehaving, the best thing to do is to calmly use your appropriate, safe system of consequences. If your child believes that his behavior is getting to you, he'll use it again and again. If it looks as though it doesn't bother you one way or the other and your child ends up with the consequence, he'll learn not to do it again.

The other thing about yelling is that it doesn't teach anything. The child is mostly focusing on how loud you are rather than what the lesson to be learned is. The rule of thumb is: show as little emotion as possible. Keep your buttons where your child can't see or predict them. Remember that your child is doing the behavior because it works to get something he wants. Don't play into that.

There are 6 other mistakes I have seen parents make that make behavior worse. I would love to talk with you about them.

Dr. Sherri is a Child and Family Processing and Motivation expert seeing people via webcam. For more info click here.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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