Tag Archives: discipline

Offering Choices to Children

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Parents often talk about “offering choices” to children. It can be a very helpful technique for building cooperation with your kids, avoiding power struggles, and helping them learn decision-making skills. But, like all the tools in the discipline toolbox, it helps if you know some basic ideas about how to use a tool in order to get the best results.

What Choices are Available

It is the parent’s job to decide what options are available. Then the child chooses between those options.

On a busy morning when we’re in a hurry to get out of the house, it would be unfair of me to tell my son “pick anything you want to eat for breakfast.” Because if he chose waffles and we ran out yesterday, that’s a bummer. And if then he chose a fruit salad, I’d say “I don’t have time to make that.” If then he said mac and cheese, then I’d say no, and then we have a power struggle on our hands when I describe all the rational reasons these choices are not an option, and he’d say “but you said I could choose anything.”

It’s just setting us up for frustration on both sides. (Or I could just give in and say yes to anything he demanded, but then I’d be cranky and resentful and he’d learn he gets anything he wants if he complains enough.)

Instead, before I offer a choice, I need to decide what acceptable options are. I can’t expect a young child to remember what food we have in the freezer right now, to know how long it would take to prepare food and whether that would make us late to school, or any of those other details I’m taking into consideration. So… first, I think about these things, I think about what options are possible, and then when I say “what do you want for breakfast – cheerios, yogurt, or an apple and peanut butter?” I know that all of these things are possible and that I would be fine with him making any of those choices.

I control what options are on the table, he decides which one of those to choose.

If he then asked for waffles, I could say “sorry buddy, we’re out of waffles – you can choose….” and reiterate the reasonable options. If he said “can I have grapes and string cheese?” I’d say “hmm…. that wasn’t one of my options, so I have to think about that… it is a lot like the apple and peanut butter option, and I know we have those things, so yes, you could choose that.” (Notice, I let him make a choice that wasn’t in the options but I was still the one in control of deciding whether that option was available. I set the limits that would work for us both and gave him some insight into my decision-making.)

How Many Choices to Offer

Some parents make the mistake of offering too many options, which can be overwhelming for a little one. Too many overwhelming choices in one day will lead to meltdowns. A good rule of thumb for little ones is to offer just one decision at a time, and for that decision, offer as many options as the child is years old. A 2 year old chooses between the red shirt and the blue shirt. (And you just put a pair of pants on them without them having to also make that decision.) A 3 year old chooses between cereal, toast, or yogurt. (You decide what dish to use, and where they sit.) A 4 year old has four bedtime stories to choose between. (You decide that they’ll brush teeth before you read the story.)

With More Choices, Offer More Guidance

As the child gets older, you may offer more choices, but give them criteria you would use to help make a good decision. For example, an 8 year old can go to a full closet of options and choose all their clothes (pants, shirt, socks, underwear), but the parent might offer guidance. “I know yesterday was super warm and you wore shorts, but today will be much cooler, so you’ll probably want to choose long pants. And you may want to wear your flannel hoodie this morning till it warms up.” Or “I know you want to play with Legos today. The other two things you need to do before dinner are bring in the trash bins and do your homework. You can choose what order to do them in, but they all need to be done. I’d probably do the trash bins first because it’s quick and easy and you’ve still got your shoes and coat on.”

Talking through this decision-making process helps them build the skills to do this independently later on.

When To Offer Choices (and when not to)

Don’t offer choices to a child in the middle of a huge meltdown. At that point, they’re in their “downstairs brain” and not capable of having a rational discussion and making decisions. I was once in the mall parking lot, and a child was having a massive meltdown, and the mom kept saying “You can’t run in the parking lot. You have three choices – you can ride in your stroller or I can carry you or you can hold my hand while we walk.” This was a kid in full meltdown – he wasn’t processing anything she was saying, even though she said it over and over. It would have been better to say “it’s not safe for you to be here, so I need to carry you” and when the child starts to calm down, then offer the other options.

An even better approach was to offer the choices before the situation and long before the meltdown. While the child was still buckled in his car seat and calm, she could say “Remember in the parking lot, it’s not safe for you to run off. You have three choices….” (Or actually, I would have offered two choices – three is a lot at that age, even when the child is calm.

Don’t offer choices to bribe your child out of a tantrum. Imagine you’re in a store and your child asks you to buy an expensive toy, and you say no, and they meltdown, and then you say “OK, fine – you can have one of these cheap toys – do you want the dog or the monkey?” Your child has now learned an effective technique to bully you into getting them something. Instead, if you’re willing to buy a cheap toy, say that going in. “In the store, if you can behave well while I do my shopping, then I will let you choose one toy. But it has to be something little and it has to cost less than _____.” If you’re not willing, don’t offer. Say “We have to buy a birthday present for your friend today, but we’re not buying anything for you. But if you can behave well, and we can do this quickly, then we’ll be able to play in the playground for a little while when we’re done shopping.”

Again, you’re in control of what options are on the table. They choose between those options.

Let Them Make Bad Choices

Now, we obviously can’t control everything our kids do. And we wouldn’t want to. They need to have plenty of times where they’re making their own decisions (in environments that are reasonably safe for them to do this in.) And when given freedom, sometimes children do dumb things. They make bad choices. You gotta let them do that sometimes. You can’t protect them from all dumb things and from the consequences of all bad choices.

If you rescue them from the consequences, they never learn to make better choices. So, some times, you should let them suffer some consequences. I empathize, but I don’t immediately rescue. (But I do have a plan for how we’ll move out of this.)

For example, my child wanted to wear her slippers to play outdoors. I would say “it’s wet out there – your slippers aren’t waterproof. Your feet will get wet.” One day she begged and begged to wear the slippers to the park before story time. Her feet got wet. I said “I’m sorry, I know you hate wet feet.” But I didn’t fix it. We played in the park with wet feet and she hated it. When it came time for story time, I said “I brought shoes and dry socks along for story time – would you like to change into those now?” Her slippers were too wet to wear when we got back home, so she had to go without the, for a day. After that, she knew not to wear her slippers outside.

Learn more about natural consequences and about other tools in the discipline toolbox.

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Words Matter

We recently did an exercise in a parenting class that I teach, where I talked with parents about discipline and ways to speak with our kids to increase the chance that they will do what they are supposed to do. How you talk to your kids and what you say effect the chances that they’ll listen.

Here are some ineffective communications techniques and ways to turn them around to make them more effective:

Vague Commands

What you may be saying: Be good. Behave better. Be nice. You better behave well at the restaurant.

Why this may not be working for you: Saying “be good” implies they are bad. And, these vague commands require them to guess what it is that you want them to do. (What does “be good” look like?)

Alternative approaches that may be more effective: Set clear expectations in advance about what good behavior is in that context. “At lunch, you’ll need to sit in your chair or my lap and use a quiet voice.” If issues arise, give very clear, concrete instructions for what they should do. “Please sit on your chair now or you can sit in my lap.”

Try re-writing these sentences:  “Be good at the movie.” “Be nice to her.”

Broken Record

What you may be saying: We’re late, let’s go. Come on, we’re late. Can you just put your shoes on? We’re late, we need to go. Come on!

Why this may not be working for you: If you feel like you’re saying the same thing over and over, you should ask yourself: can they hear you? Do they understand what you want them to do? Do they have the skill to do that? What’s stopping them from doing it?

Alternative approaches that may be more effective: Connect to Correct. Make sure you have their attention first, then tell them what the behavior issue is. Go near them, get down to their level, establish eye contact, and use a calm voice. Once you have their attention, then offer clear guidance – say it once – loud and clear!

Try re-writing this sentence: “Stop jumping on the couch. Cut it out. No jumping. You know you’re not supposed to jump on the couch. Stop it.”

Only telling them what NOT to do

What you may be doing: Don’t throw that / spill that / hit the dog / slam the door

Why this may not be working: If you just say what not to do, they have to first stop their impulse, then figure out what they can do instead. Both are hard for young kids to do!

Alternative approaches: Tell them what to do: “Carefully hand that to me. Move your milk so it doesn’t spill. Pet the dog softly. Close the door gently.”

Try re-writing: “Don’t throw your Legos.”  “I hate it when you slam the door.”

Dismissing their Feelings

What you may be doing: I don’t care if you’re mad – we don’t break things…. You know we need to leave the park now – crying won’t change that… I know you’re excited, but you need to sit down.

Why this may not be working: Dismisses their feelings as unimportant. Until the emotion is acknowledged, it may be hard to move past it. Saying “I know you have this feeling, BUT…” doesn’t count as validating, because that “but” implies you don’t care about their feelings.

Alternative approaches: Validate emotions first, then address the behavior or re-state limits. “I know you’re mad. It’s not OK to break things.” “I can see that makes you sad. I get that – I’m sad too. And… it’s still time to leave the park.” “I know you’re excited and it’s hard to stay still. It’s important to sit down so other people can see.”

Try re-writing: “Don’t cry. You know I won’t give you more candy.” “I know you’re mad that he took your toy, but you can’t hit him.”

Over-using If / Then Threats

What you may be doing: If you don’t brush your teeth right now, then no bedtime story.

Why this may not be working: Could imply you expect they’ll do the bad thing. (Kids are good at living up to expectations!) Could imply you’re looking forward to punishing.

Alternative approaches: When / then – When you do [this good thing], then we get to do [something mutually enjoyable] together. “When you’re done brushing your teeth, we get to read a bedtime story. If you’re fast enough we get to read two!”

Try re-writing: “If you don’t help me clean, then you don’t get to go to the park.”

Note: there is a place for using if/then threats as consequences, but start with when/then.

Asking Questions when you mean to give Commands

What you may do: Would you please stop yelling? Are you ready to sit in your car seat?

Why this may not be working: If you ask it as a question, that implies they can say no, or opt out of what you’re asking them to do.

Alternative approaches: If you’re really offering a choice, make sure they know they can choose either option. If you don’t mean to offer a choice, then give a command not a question. “Use a quiet voice.” “You need to sit in your car seat now.”

Try re-writing: “Do you want to put on your boots now?”

Do Try This At Home

Sometime in the next week, test this out! When you find an opportunity to change your communication from your normal style to trying out a new communication strategy from above, then seize the moment and test this out.

Then reflect on these questions

  • What happened as a result of using this new communication strategy?
  • What did you notice about how it felt?
  • What happened with your child?
  • How might this support a relationship with your child?

Share your experience in the comments!

Here’s a free printable version of this exercise on Effective Communication Techniques to Improve Discipline.

Kids Do Well If They Can

To resolve problem behavior in children, first attempt to figure out why the behavior is happening. A key question to ask yourself is: are they capable of behaving better? Dr. Ross Greene argues that “if your child could do well, he would do well… If your child had the skills to exhibit adaptive behavior, he wouldn’t be exhibiting challenging behavior.”

Let’s contrast this “kids do well if they can” idea with another common philosophy, which Greene calls “kids do well if they wanna.”

Kids Do Well if They Wanna

If a child is not doing well, this model assumes that it’s because they don’t want to do well. So, that implies that the parent/teacher’s primary job is to make him want to do well. Typically that would lead to rewarding the behaviors you like, or punishing the behaviors you don’t like. If you’re right and he IS capable of doing it, then this may work. If he’s not capable of doing well, all the rewards and punishment won’t change that. The problem behavior might not improve or might even get worse.

Under this model, you first ramp up the punishment, and if it still doesn’t work, you may decide his behavior is fully intentional… maybe he’s trying to manipulate you or get attention or test limits or maybe he’s just lazy and unmotivated. If you start assuming this kid is a bad kid who intentionally misbehaves, his behavior will not improve.

Kids Do Well If They Can

What happens if we instead assume that kids want to do well, but sometimes they aren’t yet able to? Here, the parent/teacher’s primary job is to figure out what’s getting in his way and how to help him get past it.

Instead of jumping ahead to fix the behavior, first figure out what the core issue is. What’s hard for them? Think about the environments / situations where the challenging behavior appears. What are the stressors in that environment and how could you reduce them? What skills are they lacking that would help them to be successful there? How can you teach those crucial skills? What unmet needs in the child might be causing this behavior? Can you address those?

Here’s a nice infographic (source: https://self-reg.ca/infographics/ ) that summarizes these models.

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Learn a lot more about this idea, and about Greene’s model at https://www.livesinthebalance.org/walking-tour-parents which includes several helpful videos of Dr. Greene sharing his ideas.

47 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids (or Their Heads Will Explode)


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There’s an article by Parents Magazine  that I often see shared on the internet. It’s titled “10 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids.” But the article is not about obviously harmful phrases like “You’re worthless.” “I hate you.” “I wish you’d never been born.” Instead, they’re cautioning about saying “Great job.” “Practice makes perfect.” “Let me help.” “Be careful.” “You’re OK.”

Huh?? You may wonder what is so awful about these words.

When you read their article, it’s got lots of really good content, and is well worth a read. But a better title would be “Translating Common Parenting Sayings into More Positive Statements Which Will Help Your Kids Develop Into the Emotionally and Physically Healthy, Upstanding Citizens You Hope They Will Become.”

But, Parenting magazine knows the rules of modern media. When you want people to read a title on Facebook and click through to read the article, it helps to include a number in the title (“5 reasons chocolate is healthier than kale”) and it helps if they can convince readers that if they don’t read the article something terrible will happen to them or their children. (“Follow our screen time tips or your child will be brain damaged for life.”) And it’s not just Parenting magazine – many other media outlets have used this same headline with success. At the bottom of this post, I list just the first page of search results for “things never to say to your kids.”

But, when parents read these headlines, how does it make us feel? It raises anxiety. It creates stress around the sense of “I have to do everything right as a parent, or my child will end up screwed up.” It makes us feel guilty about all the times we’ve “done it wrong.”

So, let’s first reality check these articles:

  1. At some point, all parents say mean things to their kids. It’s not just you! Just yesterday I said some things I’m sure are on lists of “things never to say to your kids.” We all have bad days, and we get angry, because we’re human. (Check out my series on parental anger – how to manage it and how to heal from it.)
  2. Luckily, kids are remarkably resilient. (To learn more about resiliency and how to help your kids build it, read this article by Jan Faull on the PEPS website.) If you have a positive, loving relationship with your child overall, a few harmful words will not damage that permanently.
  3. Almost all the things on all these lists of “things never to say” aren’t really that dreadful. I promise you that if you say good job to your child, they won’t be permanently damaged!!  However, there are many more things you might say instead, or in addition to, good job. Having an awareness of alternatives just helps broaden your list of options for how to connect with and guide your child.

So, I read through all those articles on things never to say. And I’ve gathered all those phrases below. But I am NOT saying “Never say these things.” Frankly, for most of these phrases, it would be totally fine if you say them from time to time. But, they don’t want to be the only message your child hears from you. For each one, I’ll then share some of the negative or non-helpful ways the phrase could be heard by a child. Then I’ll offer other options for alternatives you can try out, and gives resources for where you can learn more.

Unadulterated praise: Great job / Good girl / That’s a beautiful picture. You did that just right. What a perfect building you built! You’re the best ____ in the whole world!

  • How your child might hear this: Could hear judgment – there’s only one right way to do things. Could feel like empty praise if you say it no matter what they do, even it it’s easy. Could imply they’ve reached their limit and you don’t think they can do any better. They may not trust you after they discover they’re not the best ____ in the whole world.
  • Alternatives:  Only praise things that took effort. Focus on the process and HOW they did it and what they learned rather than on the product. Give specific detailed feedback about what’s good, and what could be even better. Read about questions to ask to extend their learning. Read more about effective praise.

You make me feels…. I’m proud of you. I love it when you…. It would make me happy / mad if you… I’m ashamed when you…. I’ll never forgive you

  • How your child might hear this: Your love is conditional on their accomplishments. Also implies that your emotional well-being is dependent on their behavior.
  • Alternatives: Let your child know that you will always love them, no matter what. (This doesn’t mean that all behavior is always OK – it’s not and you do need to set limits. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t have high expectations for them. You do want them to work hard and be good people. But your happiness should not depend on that. 

Practice makes perfect. 

  • How your child might hear this: Anything less than perfect isn’t good enough.
  • Alternatives: “Practice and you will improve.” “Making mistakes helps us get better.” “If you aren’t making any mistakes, this is too easy for you and maybe you’re ready for more challenge.” Read more about Willingness to Fail is the Inventor’s Key to Success

 

Labeling:  You’re so [shy, smart, clumsy, pretty]. You’re the [strong, fast, silly, wild] one. You always… You’ll never… [lose, win, do anything wrong / right]. You’re worthless / a loser. Girls don’t do that / Boys don’t like..

  • Labeling your child limits them. If you label them based on a problem behavior, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and they may continue to be that way. If you label them by a “talent” that they have, that creates a lot of pressure on them to retain that talent. They may worry about losing your love / their identity if they don’t succeed in that area.
  • Alternatives: You do want to understand your child’s temperament, gender influences, and learning style and help support them in using their strengths to build confidence and work around the things that come harder to them. But don’t “label” kids or think they’ll never change. Praise effort, not talent. Let them know that everyone can get better at anything if they work at it. Learn more about the growth-based mindset.

Shaming: “You’re just like [someone your child knows you don’t like]. Why can’t you be more like… Stop acting like a baby. You’re so [negative adjective]. Big boys don’t… Good girls don’t…

  • What they might hear: These statements are intended to shame a child. “A child’s self-identity is shaped around the things they hear about themselves.”
  • Alternatives: Let your child become the very best them they can become without worrying whether they are just like someone else. If you disapprove of a child’s behavior, tell them how to change the behavior. Try not to attack their identity or their sense of being worthy of your love.

What’s wrong with you?

  • Implies that the problem is with them, instead of with the situation.
  • Alternatives:  What’s wrong?” “What happened that upset you?”

Let me do it:  Let me help you. Just let me do it for you. You’re doing it wrong, let me do it. You’re too slow, I’ll do it.

  • What they might hear: Implies that they’re not competent. If you rescue your child from every challenge, how will they ever learn to do anything on their own?
  • Alternatives: Allow them to be frustrated. When we’re struggling with something, we’re on the verge of learning something new. (If they’re miserable, that’s a different story….) Ask guiding questions – “what happens if…” Make gentle suggestions “Try…” If you’re really in a hurry say “I need to help you so we can get to preschool on time. Tomorrow you can try again when we have more time.”

Don’t cry. You’re OK. What a dumb thing to get upset about. Don’t worry, it will be fine. There’s no reason to be scared, just do it.

  • What they might hear: Their feelings are not important to you. They shouldn’t trust their own feelings, they should let other people tell them how to feel. Tells them not to trust their intuition and do things even if they seem risky. (This could get them into all sorts of trouble as teens.)
  • Alternatives: Validate emotions and pain first, then reassure. Once you’ve said “I hear that you’re scared / hurt / worriedthen you can address logical reasons why you believe that it will be OK in the end. More on emotion coaching.

Don’t talk to strangers

  • What they might hear: This blanket message can make your child fearful of everyone and also limit their ability to learn the social skills they’ll need as adults who very frequently have to talk to strangers!
  • Alternatives: Model appropriate ways to interact with appropriate strangers. Talk to them about how to tell the difference. Read more about how to help your kid judge whether to talk to strangers  and talk about tricky people.”

Be careful. Watch out!

  • What they could hear: Of course we use it when needed! But if over-used, can create a fearful child who thinks the world is a dangerous place. Also: Teacher Tom says: “An adult who commands, “Don’t slide down that banister!” might be keeping a child safe in that moment, but is… robbing him of a chance to think for himself, which makes him that much less safe in the future when no one is there to tell him what to do.”
  • Alternatives:Demonstrate / model how to be safe. Encourage them to look before leaping. Encourage them to tune into how they feel about something – if they’re nervous, there may be a good reason. When the risk is just a mild bump or bruise, let them test things. If they get that bruise, they’ll learn something important. Read more about teaching safety skills.

Promises you can’t keep: I’ll never let anything bad happen to you. Don’t worry – you’ll always be safe. I promise – I’ll never die. I’ll always be here

  • What they might hear: Lies. And no tools for how to survive hardship.
  • Alternatives. “I’ll do my best to keep you safe. I’ll try to always be there for you, for as long as I live. Sometimes bad things will happen and I’ll try to help give you tools for coping with that.”

Please Go Aways: You’re in the way. I can’t get anything done with you around. Hurry up. You’re making us late. Shut up. I have better things to do than… Would you just leave me alone for 5 minutes?

  • What they might hear: So, I totally get that children are terribly inconvenient at times, and that they make everything harder, and that we all need breaks sometimes!! However, these sorts of statements create stress and anxiety and make the child wonder if he is loved.
  • Alternatives: Give positive, concrete suggestions for other positive, concrete things they could be doing in the moment. When you really need a break or need help, admit it and ask for it. That’s part of modelling self care. “Mama is really sick today. I need your help. Can you sit and play quietly for just a few minutes?”

If/Then: If …. then…..  If you do [this bad thing], then you’ll get [this punishment].

  • What they might hear: “I’m expecting bad behavior and am looking forward to punishing you.”
  • Alternative: When … then….  “When you do [good thing that I’m expecting you to do], then we’ll get to do [this fun thing] together.” Learn more about punishment and reward.

Wait till your father gets home.

  • What they might hear: you don’t have enough power to enforce consequences.
  • Alternatives: Consequences should be immediate, logical, and enforced by the parent who encountered the misbehavior.

I told you so: that’s what you get for not listening

  • What they might hear: Feels a little vindictive, like you were hoping something bad would happen to them.
  • Alternative: “Well, that’s not what you were hoping would happen is it? What could you do differently in the future so you don’t have this problem again?”

Because I said so

    • What they might hear: It’s authoritarian. Implies that whoever makes the rules can make arbitrary judgments on a whim, and they have no control over that.
    • Alternative: “I’m your parent, and it’s my job to keep you safe and help you grow up to be a good person and keep things running well around the house. Sometimes I have to enforce rules you don’t like. It feels unfair to you, but I will continue to do what I think is best.”

Telling them how to do things they know how to do: Hang your coat up. Wash your hands.

  • What they could hear: You think they’re now smart or competent. Also implies they only need to do those things when you tell them to.
  • Alternatives: Ask them that to do: “Where does your coat go? What do you do before we eat? I bet you know what you need to do next.”

Don’t ______. Don’t throw that / spill that / hit the dog / slam the door.

  • What they might hear: If you just tell them  NOT to do, they first have to stop their impulse to do it (which is hard for a young child) and then figure out something to do instead (which is even harder.) Also, if they already know not to do that thing, you don’t want to pay too much attention to it, as attention reinforces behavior.
  • Alternative: Tell them what TO DO. “Carefully set that down. Move your milk so it doesn’t spill. Pet the dog softly. Close the door gently.”

You did that wrong. Why do you mess things up?

  • What they could hear: Mistakes are bad. Don’t try anything you’re not sure you can do well.
  • Alternative: “Oops, that didn’t work. What could you do differently?” “Making mistakes helps us get better.”

Learn more:

Here are lots more articles on these ideas.

Printable handout:

Would you like to print out a handout of this info for yourself or to share with friends or students or clients? Click here for: Words Matter 2. Includes a worksheet where you can practice re-writing sentences to be more effective.

Time Out

Time Out is an important tool in the discipline toolbox, but it’s an easy one to mis-use or over-use, and it doesn’t work for all families, but let’s examine the best practices for time out.

(* Age note: For a two year old, we don’t really do a prolonged Time Out with this full method. We would instead: remove the child from the situation, hold them calmly for a minute or so, or sit with them till they’re calm, then let them return to play. )

What is Time Out?

First, let’s understand what it is: It’s Time Out from Positive Attention. Children like attention, so will act in the ways that get the most notice from their parents – whether it’s negative or positive attention. So, for mild misbehavior that’s just annoying, we use the “Ignoring” tool. For bigger issues, we use Time Out, which is spending time in a boring place, for a prescribed time, getting no attention. Time Out is a chance for your child to calm down (and for you to calm down), then return to better behavior. Time Out is not jail… it’s not intended to make your child suffer for their crimes.

Time Out will only be effective within the context of a supportive, loving relationship. If your child normally gets lots of positive attention from you, then Time Out is a big change from that. If your child is often ignored, Time Out isn’t much different, or the process of misbehaving and being sent to Time Out may be the way the child actually gets themselves some attention from the parent.

Developing Your Time Out Plan

Make your plan in advance for how you’ll use time out. (Springing the idea on an unsuspecting child in the middle of a meltdown is not going to work!)

Explain your plan to your child in advance, when everyone is calm. Practice it a few times at a family meeting so everyone knows exactly how it will work, and what the goals are of using it. Make sure your child clearly knows what behavior will lead to a time out.

When: What Behaviors Lead to Time Out

Time Out is best when used sparingly, for aggression – situations when your child is hurting someone or something, or for non-compliance – times when you have tried other discipline tools and your child continues to disobey. (Note: all young children ignore or disobey about 1 out of 3 commands. If a simple reminder gets them to comply, you won’t need Time Out – it is for more intentional or chronic non-compliance.)

Sometimes, you may want to send your child to a Time Out because you need a break. That’s not a fair use of Time Out. If you need a break, be honest about that, and take one. Do this before you explode

Where:

Select a place for Time Out. It should be:

  • Boring: Somewhere with no toys, books or screens to provide pleasant experiences.
  • Out of the way of the flow of traffic, so you don’t have to move past the child, and not in a place that tends to draw the attention of other children. (For example, the back of the classroom is better than the front, or just around the corner from the dining table where you can keep an eye on them but your other children can’t see them, is better than somewhere that will draw the attention of other kids (who then may try to provoke the child who is in Time Out.)
  • Safe: Bathrooms or kitchens can be dangerous places for kids to be without close supervision.
  • Some parents avoid the child’s bedroom as they don’t want the child to think of their room as a punitive place. Other parents, who focus more on the calm-down aspect of Time Out than the punitive aspect, may find that the bedroom works well.
  • You might choose to include a few calm down tools in this place, such as a Calm Down Bottle, a favorite stuffed animal, a stress ball, a weighted vest or blanket, or bubbles to blow.

Call this the Time Out Place or the Calming Place. It’s not “the naughty chair.”

If your child misbehaves in public, consider using another discipline tool. If Time Out makes the most sense, you can go to your car, or to a quiet corner with them while they take a Time Out from your attention.

How Long

For a three year old*, we set a baseline of three minutes, for a four year old four minutes. For older children, we start at 5 but increase up to 9 if needed. (See below.) Longer Time Outs are not effective and may just make the child resentful and resistant to future Time Outs.

When they’ve reached the minimum time requirement and they’ve had a calm voice and body for a couple minutes, then you can declare that Time Out is over. (They don’t decide… you do.)

Note: the first couple times you use Time Out, it may take them longer to calm down. (Even as long as 20 minutes.) In the long term, we want Time Out to be as brief as possible for them to calm down and return. We want to help them realize that if they can calm down right away, then they’ll get out of Time Out as soon as the time requirement is met.

What and How

  1. Describe the problem behavior clearly. State what behavior you would like to see.
  2. Warn that if the problem behavior continues, there will be a time out. (If you’re not willing to do a Time Out right now, then don’t threaten to do one… Empty threats make it less likely the tool will work in the future.)
  3. Give a clear command, including the reason. Keep it short and simple. “You did ___. Go to Time Out now.”
  4. What they should do in Time Out: The goal is that they learn to calm themselves down. They won’t initially know how to do that! Self-calming skills are something we need to be teaching at other times when they’re calm so they may be able to use them in Time Out eventually. At first, expect that they will stomp, kick, yell and whine a lot in Time Out. Over time, they will learn that this behavior doesn’t gain them anything, and they’ll give up on it.
  5. What you do when they’re in Time Out: Give them as little attention as possible. Try to move on with your day, not nagging them, responding to their pleas, and so on. If they yell, don’t yell back. If they ask “how many more minutes” you don’t have to respond. (You could choose to announce when a minute has passed.) You might need to use your own self-calming skills and positive self-talk at this time to stay calm.
  6. If there are other children with you, encourage them to “use their Ignoring Muscles” and tune out the person who is in Time Out. You can continue to play nicely with the other child(ren), giving positive attention to their positive behavior.
  7. Once the time requirement has been met, if the child has been calm for two minutes, release them. If not, simply use a When/Then statement. “Please work on calming yourself down. When you have been calm for two minutes, then you can come out of Time Out.”
  8. When time out is done, re-engage with your child, and praise their first positive behavior.

What if they resist?

  1. What if they resist going to Time Out? If they are 3 – 6 years old, you say “You can go to Time Out on your own or I can take you there.” If they don’t go, calmly take them there.  For a 6 – 10 year old, you say “I’m going to add an extra minute in Time Out. That’s 6 minutes.” Wait ten seconds. If they still don’t go, add another minute, up to 9. After that, add a consequence: “That’s 10 minutes now, and if you don’t go to Time Out right now, you will lose screen time privileges for tonight.” If they go to Time Out, after 10 minutes they’re done. If they won’t go to Time Out, we drop the power struggle over Time Out and they receive the consequence instead.
  2. What if they try to escape Time Out? You re-set the Time Out clock, and you say “If you come out again, then you will have this consequence.”

Using Time Out

It is best to develop a specific routine for Time Out, so you can do it the same way every time. Here are two sample scripts, based on the Incredible Years program:

Time Out for Aggression

“You hit. You need to go to Time Out.” Child goes to Time Out. Once time is up, and they have been calm for two minutes: “Your Time Out is Finished. You can play now.” As soon as you see any positive behavior, praise it – you’re returning positive attention to them.

Time Out for Non Compliance

This would be used for an on-going behavior challenge – such as when they’ve been resisting bedtime or doing chores or turning off the screen.

First, give a transition statement that tells them when you’ll be asking for a behavior and what you’ll ask for. “In five minutes, [your screen time will be over and you will need to calmly hand me the tablet].” Then, when the time comes, state a brief command. “Your time is up. Hand me the tablet now.” Wait 5 – 10 seconds for them to process the command. If they comply, praise and move on. If not, give an if/then warning about Time Out: “If you do not hand it to me now, then I’ll take it and you’ll have a time out.” Wait 5 – 10 seconds… if they don’t comply: “You didn’t give it to me. I am taking it. Go to Time Out.” If they refuse to go, or won’t stay in Time Out, warn of a consequence: “If you don’t go/stay in Time Out, then you will lose half your screen time for tomorrow.” After the Time Out is over and/or the consequence is imposed, then, if needed, return to the original command. (If this all started when you asked them to clean up and they refused to clean up, you can’t let that go… they still need to clean up. Otherwise, many kids would choose the 5 minute Time Out to avoid cleaning up!

Initial Resistance

Expect that the first few times you use Time Out there will be a lot of drama – they may resist, they may cry, they may throw things. After things are calm again, have another family meeting talking about what Time Out is, why you’re using it, and how it can be an easy solution if done well. Let them know that you will continue using it, and they can decide whether to make it a miserable experience for themselves, or whether to use it as a brief 5 minute calm down interlude that you can all move on quickly from.

Moving On From Time Out

Once time out is over, move on, don’t rehash. We all make mistakes, and need to come back in and try again. Don’t nag at them, let this be a clean slate moment. Give them positive attention and praise any positive behavior you see.

Important note: If they were using Time Out to get away from doing a chore, make sure they complete that chore after Time Out. Be matter of fact about this, giving positive feedback as they return to the work.

What Else Can You Do?

If you find yourself using Time Out every day, consider using other discipline methods for some of these situations. Choose a very limited set of behaviors that you will use Time Out for.

If you have been using Time Out for the same behavior repeatedly for multiple weeks, you need to form another strategy since it is not effectively changing behavior. (One thing to consider is whether or not your rules and expectation are developmentally appropriate for the child. Are you asking more of them than they’re capable of?) Seek help from a parent educator, teacher, or counselor if you need outside perspective to come up with new ideas.

Continue to teach other skills

Time Out does not teach your child what to do better. It can’t be used as your only discipline tool. Be sure to also be using positive attention, praise, guidance in what TO DO, teaching ways to understand and manage their big emotions, role modeling, and more to help your child learn how to behave better. When they’re mis-behaving, ask yourself whether consequences might be a better response than Time Out. Your long-term goal is self-discipline – raising a child who knows what it means to be a good person and behaves that way most of the time. Using a wide variety of these tools will help to teach them how to do this.

Learn More about Time Out

For lots more information and tips for effective time outs, check out the CDC’s guide to Using Timeout, read The Incredible Years or participate in an Incredible Years program. And if you like to know the research behind recommendations, check out: Weighing in on the Time Out Controversy and “The Role of Time-Out in a Comprehensive Approach for Addressing Challenging Behaviors of Preschool Children” (here or here)