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This is not a question about whether or not to use timeouts. I am prepared to have that discussion, but not on this question. I believe they have their place in a parent's arsenal, and I also accept they are a perishable resource. This is more a question about the following aspects of timeouts:

  • I've heard 1-1.5 minutes per year the child has aged. I typically skew longer, but I'll get to that shortly.
  • When in timeout the child's conduct must be _______. As opposed to allowing whatever state the child is in to persist and run its course naturally.
  • After the timeout is over, there is a discussion about cause(s) of the timeout.
  • There maybe an apology offered, or required depending on circumstances.
  • That apology is, or isn't allowed to count based upon the perceived sincerity
  • If certain actions take place during the timeout session, the timer will be reset, and there maybe a discussion about why.

As much as I've tried to remain consistent in my parenting; I've had to tweak certain aspects of the timeout in order to feel it has relevancy. For better or worse, my kids can pretty much count on the following from me,... mostly related to timeouts.

  • If you throw a fit, you won't get what you want. My kids know this as incontestable. I don't allow negotiations to take place in that manner inside a timeout or otherwise.
  • This also means I don't start the timer until the child is calm, and collected and can tell me they are ready for the timer to start.
  • I don't allow: speaking, singing, dancing, humming, whistling, tapping on things, or basically noise making distractions of any kind.
  • I don't allow toys, or fiddling around with anything within arms reach.
  • Basically I expect them to use the time to reflect on the behavior, and situation that caused the timeout.
  • For this reason, I usually must conduct timeouts in a semi-public place (e.g. not in their room) so that I can make sure the behavior matches expectations.
  • I escalate a timeout into a room timeout (e.g. full isolation) in only the rarest of circumstances. In those cases, I accept that the child can focus on whatever they want to during this time, which likely won't be the situation that got them placed in isolation in the first place.

Generally speaking timeout are very rare in my house at this point. I largely feel my kids are able to communicate effectively and appropriately about issues that arise that used to result in a timeout. That may, or may not be a result of the nature of my timeout system. It may, or may not be a result of their age (e.g. they may have simply outgrown them). My son is 4, and my daughter is 7.

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    Jots all this down – Brian Robbins Mar 30 '15 at 22:12
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    "There maybe an apology offered, or required depending on circumstances." Does this really do any good? – bjb568 Apr 1 '15 at 4:32
  • @bjb568, you have a good point. I feel there is a lot of gray area here. I'd like to cultivate a sense of empathy in cases where they have wronged another, but sometimes they come out of the timeout still upset about circumstances. Those apologies are perfunctory at best, and likely worthless. That's part of why I included the next item, about whether or not the apology can stand. I'm a little bit conflicted about the apology step in general though... – Matt Apr 2 '15 at 17:04
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    @Matt I can't figure out what you're asking. Are you sharing what works well for you? Answering your own question? Are you looking for ways to improve the way you do time-outs? Something else entirely? – aparente001 Apr 3 '15 at 6:02
  • @aparente001, I suppose I'm looking to distill my process. A complete answer in my view will address the pros and cons of not only the process as I outlined it, but also anything I may have missed. Maybe this is too general a question as it can largely depend on the age of the child being disciplined. Then again maybe the answer to how to conduct a proper timeout maps the appropriate steps with the appropriate age range. Hope this helps! Thanks! – Matt Apr 15 '15 at 23:00
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I would say that your time outs are too micromanaged and rare to be effective. All the additional "rules" end up clouding the purpose of the punishment, which is to remove the child from the situation and not let them have attention. By making yourself expend so much energy getting the time outs just right, you're using them less often than would be effective.

I use the 1-2-3 Magic method, based on the book 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Whelan. Here's one of the things it says about disciplining children:

The two biggest mistakes that parents and teachers make in dealing with children are these: Too Much Talking and Too Much Emotion.

I'm not sure if Too Much Emotion is one of your problems, but I believe Too Much Talking likely is. Keep it short and simple. "You're in time out, [x] minutes."

Have them go to their time out destination, and then leave. You should only need to intervene again if they leave their time out room/area. Afterwards, no discussion is really necessary unless the child doesn't know why they were in time out. Generally, if the child gets a time out for being obnoxious or disrespectful they already know why they got the time out, so that additional talking isn't necessary.

Once they're in their area, the timer should start. Don't wait, or try to discuss the conditions of the time out, as that's just a power struggle with no victor.

Once done, it's done. The time out is over and everyone moves on.

You may also be limiting yourself by trying to control their actions and environment too much. Here's another excerpt from the book:

Does the room have to be a sterile environment?
No. Many books tell you the time-out room should be modeled after a cell in a state penitentiary. Complete and utter boredom—that’ll teach ’em! This is unnecessary. The child can go to the room and read, take a nap, play with Legos, draw and so on. She doesn’t even have to stay on her bed. Just to be safe, though, there are three things that are forbidden: no phone, no friends with and no electronic entertainment.

Some people ask: “Well then, just how is a rest period supposed to work? My kid tells me that time out’s fine with her—she doesn’t care and she’ll just go upstairs and play.” Don’t pay much attention to any child who says, “I don’t care.” That comment usually means the opposite: She does care. And if her room were such a great place to be, she would have already been up there.

The fact of the matter is, the power of the 1-2-3 does not come so much from the time out itself; it usually comes from the interruption of the child’s activities. It just so happens that when this girl was timed out for hitting her brother, she was watching her favorite TV show, Garfield. Now she has to miss a big chunk of the show. No one—including you—likes to be interrupted so you miss out on something fun.

If you really feel the time out is not effective, consider three things. First, are you still talking too much and getting too emotional during discipline efforts? Parental outbursts ruin everything. Second, if you feel you are remaining calm and time out is still not working, consider another time-out place or room.

My son goes to timeout in his bedroom. We only make sure he doesn't have battery-operated toys, and that he doesn't get into my wife's desk. Otherwise, he has free reign. We make him start out on his bed (and sometimes touching the wall), but that's more to get his head into the "I'm in time out" mode than anything.

He'll end up playing with toys, or grabbing books, but we really don't care. We know he doesn't want to be in time out, because he'll come running out of his room once the timer goes off.

And here's why I think your "semi-public" timeouts aren't effective:

Can you use a time-out chair instead of a room?
You can use a stair or a chair for a time out (don’t use a corner of the room), but only if the child does not make a game out of the situation. Some kids, for example, sit on the chair at first, but then start gradually losing contact with it. Eventually they may just be touching their little finger to the chair and looking at you like, “What are you going to do about this?” If your rule for time out is simply that the child must stay in contact with the chair, this is no problem. Just don’t pay any attention to the youngster. But if the child is getting on and off or away from the chair and you’re uncertain what to do, this kind of game will ruin the discipline.

We usually prefer that visual contact between parent and child be broken during the rest period, so the child can’t tease or provoke you. That’s why the child’s bedroom or other safe room is preferable. Many parents, however, have successfully used stairs and chairs and many report that the kids—even some wild ones!—sit still on them, don’t talk and don’t keep getting off. As a matter of fact, parents are often very creative in coming up with places for time outs.

Notice, here, that the main reason for not using line-of-sight time out locations is because it encourages the adult to monitor or talk to the child about their time out conduct. Every time you end up talking with them, the time out is losing its effectiveness. Essentially, the child is able to punish you by keeping you from what you're doing. You can't let them get a reaction or a response out of you. They should be out of sight, out of mind.

Effective time outs (or time out alternatives) shouldn't be rare or last-resort initiatives. They should be the first-line of discipline to be used effectively. At first, this may result in your child spending a large amount of time in time outs, which is fine. They'll learn how boring it is to be constantly sequestered away.

However, even though time outs should be the primary tool of your disciplinary arsenal, they shouldn't just be given immediately for all misbehavior. The reason the 1-2-3 method works is because it gives the child time to self-correct their behavior. Whichever method you use, I recommend a warning system where they have an opportunity to avoid a time out. That's really the goal, anyway. The warning should be delivered in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, the same way the time out itself would be delivered. (Certain behaviors, like hitting you, are always immediate time outs.)

If they don't stop their misbehavior after about 5 seconds of warning, then proceed to your next warning or time out as necessary.

To be most effective, time outs need to be given consistently. The same types of behaviors should always get a warning/time out.

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    First, let me thank you for a thoughtful and abundant answer. I wish I could reply inline to a few points, but alas I'll do my best in the space provided here in the comments. The points I agree with most are twofold. I do tend to bloviate generally, but especially during discipline. If the child is provoking me, it can keep me away from whatever I was doing. Now on to some points of disagreement. I may have to use a few comments to properly respond. – Matt Apr 15 '15 at 22:48
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    @Matt Hopefully my answer is sufficient enough just to get you thinking about the process, and maybe looking into more detailed methods. – user11394 Apr 15 '15 at 22:50
  • I only really feel I expend energy on getting timeouts just right when I have an audience. Consequently this also becomes the likeliest time for me to escalate the timeout to one of isolation. – Matt Apr 15 '15 at 22:50
  • You and the book excerpt both mention a baseline set of rules, which presumably need to be enforced just the same as mine. First there is the distinction of no electronic entertainment. Why make this distinction? Entertainment of any sort tends to focus their mind only on things extrinsic to the infraction. While this calms down younger kids, it feels like a missed opportunity for reflection. – Matt Apr 15 '15 at 22:51
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    1) No electronics distinction is because they're more distracting and easy for the parent to control. 2) If you're waiting for the child to be calm enough, then why even give them the TO? The TO is their calm-down time. 3) Parental outbursts of emotion or talking confuse and defeat the purpose of a time out. You give the child a "reaction", which is a win for them, or you further irritate them by talking, which exacerbates the situation. The discipline should be the time out, not fear or annoyance of a parent's behavior. – user11394 Apr 15 '15 at 22:59
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When it comes to time outs, I have a story and tool, that I have practiced with my daughter. She is 12 years old, very stuborn, get very angry and anxious, if things do not go her way, which usually resulted in her bad temper and being disrespectful. She does not listen or follow anything I asked her to do. I know,that she has difficulties, which she does not talk about, but I have started using time outs every time when she has nit complied with our house rule. I must say, that first she did not take me seriously. But one day, I have made it very clear what will hapoen if she breaks the rules again. Not even a week went by and along with a time out I had to put in place one of the most serious consequences, that she could ever imagine. I made her to loose one of her most favourite items her ' Mobile Phone ' for more than a whole months.

It must have been a big shock to her, as my husband and I have never had to repete this consequence again and my daughter was even thanking me for teaching her the valuable lesson about following rules and respecting adults as well as others.

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Lots of great ideas here.

I will try to describe how I have done time-outs. My younger son is 12 and has Tourette Syndrome (TS) and ADHD. Hopefully this rather extreme case gives you some ideas.

The three main influences for me in developing my approach have been:

  • I read about attachment disorders in children and how to deal with them (out of curiosity -- not because anyone in my family is affected by this)

  • A family therapist gave me the basic approach when my younger son was about 3

  • My son -- I've learned so much from him!

I think it's helpful to have a clear goal underlying the time-out. I use time-out mainly as a way for my child to regain some measure of inner self-control. When he comes out of time-out, he's more in touch with himself and more in control. Instead of just riffing off others.

What I got from reading about attachment disorders was the concept of a time-out as a period of exclusion from family life. I read that the time-out chair should be in a place somewhat removed from the main action, but still in sight and hearing of the main action. The idea was for the child in time-out to feel excluded and left out (and briefly miserable!). There's still a relationship connection -- but there's absolutely no interaction.

My time-out chair is a small green chair with a woven wicker seat that lives at the edge of the kitchen. There are no toys or interesting objects in the vicinity. My son is not allowed to take anything with him to the green chair.

In the beginning I had a triple hour glass gadget that had a different color for each hourglass -- for one minute, three minutes and five minutes. That was the suggestion of the family therapist. She wanted it to be very visual. For the first few years it tended to go as follows:

This example has to do with my son's proclivity to interrupt constantly at dinner, making it impossible to have any kind of conversation at the dinner table. At the first interruption, I reminded him of the expectation. The next time he interrupted, he was put in time-out for one minute. To put him in time-out, I would say, "Green chair, one minute. One... two... three." If he wasn't sitting in the green chair yet by the time I said "three," I would escalate: "Green chair, three minutes." I only rarely had to get to five minutes.

When my son was younger and I was angry or wanted to be theatrical, sometimes I marched him to the green chair, holding his arm firmly. More as an expressive tool, than as a way of forcing him to go. Basically, he knows he has to go there and sit down because if he doesn't, he'll get more time.

The rules for the green chair are, you have to sit quietly without playing with anything. Other family members have to be supportive by not interacting with the child in time-out.

If he talked while in the green chair, his time requirement started from the beginning again. In practice this meant that he would get a little more than a minute, because after flipping the egg timer back, I had to wait for the sand to run back to the starting point before saying, "begin."

If he got out of the green chair prematurely, he had to begin again from the beginning.

I made sure my son understood what he was in time-out for (if I thought there was any doubt) -- but not until the prescribed time was up. This was not usually necessary.

I tried to avoid a lecture, and just move on with life when the time had been served.

Nowadays I don't give many time outs, and when I give them, it's usually for 10 or 20 seconds, because that's generally enough time for him to get himself together.

When I found out about the TS, over those first few months I had to sort through my set of behavior expectations and pick a few to continue to enforce. For example, I no longer put my son in the green chair for saying, for example, "You stupe" or "Shit shit shit shit shit." Those are tics, which he can't control. But I will still say, if he's balking at putting away the dishes, "You can put away the dishes now, or you can sit in the green chair and THEN put away the dishes."

I rarely use the green chair nowadays, and when I use it, I usually keep it extremely short -- sometimes 10 seconds, sometimes 20, sometimes 30. I think the longest I've given in the last 12 months has been five minutes -- that was a special case. (I think I needed a few minutes to calm down, or something.)

Everyone has their own internal clock. I think you have to figure out how long of a time-out is right for each child.

My older son is usually away at college now, but when he was in high school, I sometimes had to send him to a time-out around the corner from the kitchen, in the entry-way, where we put our coats on hooks. He could hear family life going on without him, but we couldn't see him. If I had him do his time-out at the edge of the kitchen, like the younger one did, he would make provocative faces, when I wasn't looking, and set the younger one off.

The older one's time-outs were usually at least five minutes. I didn't time them. I just went over to the entryway to review expectations and release him when I remembered. (He wasn't allowed to release himself from time-out. I had to review expectations because I didn't want a repeat performance of what had gotten him into time-out. Most of the time-outs were for provoking his younger brother, which he was able to do in a variety of creative ways.)

Nowadays, when my younger one (the one with TS) is really out of control, I focus mainly on helping him slow down his breathing. Then when things have calmed down, we can talk about what happened. If he said something that offended me, or if he threw something, I give him an I-message, for example, "When you say 'you stupe' in this sort of context, it sounds like an insult, more than like a plain tic, and I feel insulted." Then he apologizes.

When I need my son to hand over something like a toy that's interfering with getting ready for bed, I'll say, "I'm going to count to 3 and then I'm taking the toy." After I say that, I hold out my hand. This gives him the opportunity to be in control.

Sometimes I say, "Okay, what you need to do before we do (some fun thing) is get into pajamas and practice piano. Which do you want to do first?" If there's no answer, I say, "I'm going to count to three, and then I'm going to decide for you. One... two... three. Piano." (That's if he doesn't decide for himself before I get to 3.)

I try to be pretty consistent with my counting speed.

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  • Some interesting differences between this and 1,2,3 Magic. Still, the principles are similar, and, it appears, effective. I can only remember giving one of my children time outs in high school. The rest had become pretty responsible for themselves. So it varies per child as well. Very interesting. – anongoodnurse Apr 17 '15 at 3:40

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