Q: What does a parent do if a child won’t stay in timeout? — Via email
A: Timeouts are widely used, and almost as widely questioned.
Timeouts don’t work when they are misunderstood or misapplied. They are just one step in the process of helping a child learn not only to control herself but also to know and care about the difference between right and wrong.
The term “timeout” was borrowed from sports in which a team may officially call for a brief interval — to regroup, to rethink or to slow the pace.
Timeouts were never meant to be used as a punishment or consequence or boundary-marker. They should be used to stop the action when things are getting out of hand and to help children settle themselves down and think things through.
Yet when a child is told to go on “timeout,” she must be ready to listen and self-possessed enough to pull herself together to comply. When she’s too upset, you may need to scoop her up and hold her until she’s calm enough to handle a timeout. If she’s too big for this approach, but she’s in a safe place, just backing off is often enough.
Children are far likelier to follow through with a timeout when they are calmly and firmly instructed to do so. Tone of voice is important. If a timeout is assigned angrily, or as a punishment, any but the most docile child is likely to respond with a struggle.
A child is all the more reluctant to accept a timeout if it is imposed by an adult who needs a timeout too. The same child may be happy to comply if, instead, the adult proposes, “Let’s both take a timeout.”
A child will also calm down faster if stimulation can be reduced during a timeout, with no more back-and-forth.
But the child needn’t be isolated. We know one child care center that doesn’t use timeouts. Instead there’s a “cozy couch” on one wall where children can go, or are told to go, when they need to calm down. But they can see all the action and can settle themselves down without feeling embarrassed or cut off from everyone else. The message is that learning self-control is necessary and completely respectable. These are timeouts without stigma.
Limit-setting and consequences come next. There is no point in reasoning with a child who is behaving wildly. As soon as she’s calm and able to listen, let her know that her behavior was unacceptable, and that she will be forgiven, but that she will need to make reparations.
The consequences should be as closely tied to the transgression as possible — if she hit someone, she’ll need to apologize; if she took something that wasn’t hers, she’ll need to return it.
But the rough-and-tumble challenge of mastering self-control often starts with a quiet timeout.
Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to: