Time-outs: How to make them work for your toddler

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    When your toddler acts up, one way to stop the behaviour from getting worse is often to remove them from the activity and give them a chance to calm down. This technique is known as a "Time-out"; an effective, non-violent way to calm behaviour.

    Here are our Top Tips to successful Time-outs for your little one:

    Understand what a Time-out is, and isn't

    A Time-out is not a punishment. It's an opportunity for your child to learn how to cope with frustration and adjust their behaviour. While your child is in a Time-out, they are on their own, so try to let them sit in seclusion for a few moments. Any attention from you – positive or negative – only reinforces unwanted behaviour. Think of a Time-out as the "quiet time" your toddler needs to calm down and get their emotions under control.

    It's important to act immediately (while the unwanted behaviour is happening) and tell them calmly in no more than ten words why they have to sit down and be still. Then reward them with positive attention as soon as they calm down, rather than after sitting for a certain period of time.

    Make sure you're giving Time-outs for the right reasons. Reserve Time-outs for things like; hitting or continuing to disobey. Then be consistent whenever your child breaks the rules.

    If your toddler is whining, crying, or sulking, they do not need a Time-out – they are probably feeling frustrated or disappointed. In that case, the best thing is to sit down with them and find out what's wrong; remember toddlers are naturally curious and like to explore and touch. So if you keep breakables within reach, don't be surprised to hear the occasional crash and smash!

    What's helpful about a Time-out is that it can defuse and redirect an escalating situation in an unemotional way. It lets you teach your child without setting a negative example, the way yelling or hitting does.

    Two common mistakes parents make when giving Time-outs are talking too much and getting upset or angry. Make your explanation immediate, brief, and calm. Use direct eye contact and be firm!

    When the Time-out is over, give your child a hug. A sign of affection demonstrates that they are still worthy of your love even though their behaviour is undesirable.

    Make sure your child is old enough for a formal Time-out

    Toddlers find it hard to sit still, so trying to make your little one stay in a one place for a certain period of time may well crumble into a chase scene. Here's what happens:
    • Your child runs away from their Time-out spot. You catch them and then struggle to make them stay in one place. 
    • You threaten, they laugh, elated with this new game – or cries, frustrated by the requirement. 
    • You grab; they bolt. Meanwhile, because your little one has a short attention span, your toddler forgets why you wanted them to sit still in the first place. Instead of helping your child regain their self-control, you find yourself in a power struggle.
    That's the reason traditional time-outs may not really work until sometime between your toddler's second and third birthdays.
    Until your toddler can appreciate the need to follow rules, limit the use of Time-outs. Otherwise they won't understand why they are being corrected, and you may get frustrated and discard the strategy too early.

    Start by taking Time-outs together

    Before your child is ready for a solitary Time-out, you can introduce the idea by taking what some parenting experts call a positive Time-out Together, or a "Time-in." When your child gets revved up and borders on losing control, say, "Let's take a Time-out to read a book until we feel better." Any quiet activity, such as listening to music, lying down, or putting together a simple puzzle, will work.

    Taking a Time-in with you disrupts the spiral of negative behaviour while avoiding the battle of wills that a more formal Time-out can incite. It also painlessly introduces your child to the idea of a cooling-off period.

    Be sure to give your child praise and encouragement when they behave well. Emphasising positive reinforcement for good behaviour and teaching your child alternate behaviours when they start to misbehave work far better than simply punishing bad behaviour.

    Be flexible on the specifics

    With a toddler, your goal is simply to introduce the idea of an enforced break in the action. Insisting that they sit in a certain place, in a certain way, for a certain length of time may be too much for your toddler.

    Instead of marching them to a special chair, consider just having them sit still, right where they are. Go easy in determining how long your toddler needs to stay there. (Don't start following the commonly suggested one-minute-per-year rule until your child is at least 2.) Sitting just until they become calm is generally appropriate for a toddler of 12 to 24 months old.

    Don't expect miracles

    As you've no doubt discovered, toddlers are notoriously active, wilful, and unpredictable. Testing limits and gauging your reactions – over and over again – it's your toddler's way of establishing a secure understanding of his world.

    Your child may repeatedly throw food off the table to establish that gravity continues to exist, for example. They may repeat an action just to make sure it's still "not okay," with you, so consistency and patience are very important.

    No single disciplinary approach, including Time-outs, will transform your toddler into an obedient angel. You'll want to experiment with a variety of discipline techniques throughout her toddlerhood – with a healthy balance of positive reinforcement for good behaviour – to find out what works best for both of you.

    In fact, if your child is usually obedient, you may be lucky enough never to need a Time-out. Requests and redirection may be sufficient. Or you may find that changing the pace to a quieter activity works well throughout your youngster's childhood.

    At every stage, learning which behaviours are normal (or unavoidable) keeps your expectations realistic.

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