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Sometimes we send our toddler son to his room, either to calm down or because he has misbehaved and we need some distance. Our aim is not primarily the punishment, but rather to have him calm down and/or get him out of our way. This works well and usually everything is fine 3-5 minutes later.

We don't have a "naughty step", "naughty corner" or whatever location is often mentioned in such time-out methods. He wouldn't stay there anyway, but staying in his room works fine.

Are we creating a negative link between "time-outs" and "his room"? How can we avoid that?

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You can work on not making it negative since it sounds like that's your goal. Positive discipline calls it a positive time out - invite the child to take some space to calm down. Beforehand, brainstorm with them what/ where would help them calm down. Is it coloring or reading or listening to a certain cd? Empower your child to learn self-regulatory behavior! Prompt them with "hey you seem pretty upset, I'm thinking your cool down spot would help calm you". Or whatever you call it. Soon they will recognize themselves when they need to go. You just need the "I'm wondering if some time to cool down would help before we talk about this?" as he gets older. Always ensure the child decides when he is ready to come out! It is not a punishment, it is for him to practice paying attention to his own emotional state! When he comes out, smile and ask him how he's feeling. Encourage self-reflection whenever possible. :)

I'm not sure why time out is used as a punishment but it defeats the purpose. The long term goal here is having the child recognize when their emotions are out of control or in the way and what to do about it. Since your child is a toddler I believe, you will need to prompt them quite a bit in the beginning, but remember you are teaching a coping skill, not punishing them. If they had the skill in the first place, you wouldn't be in this position!

Thus, their room will be seen as a calming, personal and reflective space. I have created this "cool down couch" in my AfterSchool program of traumatized refugee kids with little self-regulatory skills and it worked wonders! These kids were not lacking in the punishment department, nobody had tried just connecting with them and teaching the missing skills! Same with my inner city middle school kids with huge gang influences. It's a wonder what some improved self-awareness can do for a kid!

Now, for when YOU need a break? You should go to your cool down space :) "I am feeling too tired, I'm going to go to my cool down spot and relax for a few minutes. Could you help me by playing with your toys in your room so I know you're safe?" Or something along those lines.

Edited to clarify: when your child is older (preschool+), I don't send them to time-out, I am genuinely asking if their cool down spot would help. If they say no, then ask, "what would help you cool down?" Even just naming their feeling can help them feel felt and alleviate their distress right away. "You seem upset" , "You look angry", "I think you might be jealous" - and it helps build emotional literacy which is a key component of self-regulation.

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Excellent, thank you! I guess I needed to hear that "time-out" is not equal to "punishment" and you phrased that well. As for the adult cool-down space -- I know I can have a short temper sometimes, and I have sent myself into the master bedroom once or twice (it helps to know that my wife is there and can take over for a while). –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 27 '12 at 12:28
    
Oh and it doesn't have to be their room but chances are they will choose that for the privacy and quietness. Though maybe not at the toddler stage. Either way you will learn something about your child's needs/preferences. –  Christine Gordon Nov 27 '12 at 12:30
    
Yes, role modeling is so key! Don't be hard on yourself, emotions happen, the skill is in dealing with them. If your short temper is visible, say to your child after "thanks for giving me space to calm down. I was feeling ______ but I am feeling better now" –  Christine Gordon Nov 27 '12 at 12:32
    
And you could brainstorm your own space along with your child. It can help give him ideas for different things that might help soothe him, and lets him see that you are human too. A critical step in the relationship! –  Christine Gordon Nov 27 '12 at 12:34
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Also, just be prepared for the day when you child says, "do you need some cool down time dad?" :-) –  balanced mama Nov 27 '12 at 17:30
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The only way to avoid that is to not send him to his room. The reason he'll to to his room but will fight to go to a naughty corner is that there's stuff to do in his room, which may defeat the purpose of sending him to it. It is also his place, his domain, so going to it has less sting.

Will sending him to his room make him associate his room with punishment? Probably not. Is it an effective deterrent against bad behavior? Probably not.

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Thanks. I guess the lack of sting is okay because that's not our primary goal when sending him to his room. Perhaps "punishment" was too strong a word; I've revised my question. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 27 '12 at 11:09
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Well if the goal is to get him to change his behavior and it works then great. –  GdD Nov 27 '12 at 11:14
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This is a problem, both in associating their room with punishment, or alternatively in not being seen by them as a punishment, perhaps if they are happy reading in there.

From the very start, we did have a naughty step (and usefully enough, this can move so there is a step or corner in any building which can be the naughty step :-) - and its value is that it is in a place which is boring/away from fun etc., but clos enough that the kids can see/hear that everyone else is enjoying themselves.

Our rule was always a 1 minute per year of age timeout for minor infractions and if they left the naughty step we'd reset the counter.

Amusingly, the strongest reinforcement we had on this was when my father-in-law accidentally swore in front of the kids (I think he spilt his hot coffee down himself) - and he was sent there for an hour. I think he enjoyed the peace and quiet, actually :-)

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