Do time-outs work for two-year-olds?
If you draw a line in the sandbox and tell your toddler not to cross it, she’s bound to put her toe over it at some point. After all, it’s a toddler’s job to explore her surroundings and test the limits until she gets a “no” from an adult close by. But when “no” turns into a game of “oh, yes I can,” it’s time to step in and define some rules, and clearly defined consequences for when those rules aren’t followed.
For years, parents and caregivers have been using time-outs with their children. And if they’re used correctly, time-outs have proven to be a reliable tool to use when addressing undesirable behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics says time-outs tend to work best during the preschool years, but even a toddler can spend a minute or two in time-out. As long as you realize the goal is to introduce the idea of an enforced break in the action, and you’re willing to modify the steps based on your child’s specific developmental needs, many experts believe this method works.
Tips for using a time-out
- Set the rules ahead of time: Decide which two or three behaviors (i.e., hitting, biting, throwing, etc.) will cause you to use a time-out, and explain this to your child. Be patient and realize you may have to repeat this information often.
- Choose a time-out spot: This should be a place that is safe and with no distractions. Avoid calling this space anything negative, such as the “naughty chair.” Instead, put a positive spin on it with terms like the “thinking chair” or “quiet space.”
- Set a time limit: Many experts recommend the “one minute for every year of your child’s age,” rule. However, some two-year-olds are not ready to sit that long. Start with 30 seconds to one minute — just enough time for your toddler to regroup. And if she keeps getting up from the designated spot, simply walk her back and re-start the timer.
- Check-in when time is up: When the time-out is over, make sure to talk with your child about her behavior. Kneel down so you are at her eye level and ask her if she understands why you gave her a time-out. Be respectful and allow her to express her thoughts about the situation. Then remind her (with few words) that time-outs are used when a rule is broken. And, of course, let her return to play.
Downsides to using time-outs
Time-outs don’t necessarily work for all kids. It takes a bit of trial and error to identify the best consequences for your toddler's actions. If you choose to use this method, a time-out should never be seen as punishment. Rather, a time-out should be a chance for your toddler to catch her breath and take a break from the undesirable action. It’s important to remember that children do better when they feel better, so a time-out given out of anger followed by put-downs and negative statements is not an effective way to help a toddler to calm down.
Tips for addressing behavior before (or in place of) a time-out
- If you’re looking for an alternative to time-outs, many parents have success with a “time-in.” Before your toddler gets to her breaking point, sit down and spend five to ten minutes with her. It gives you an opportunity to observe her body language and ask her basic questions about the misbehavior. For her part, your toddler gets a chance to take a breather and change directions before losing her cool.
- It’s best to approach the situation with the idea (and message) that your child is not “bad.” Rather, it’s the behavior you want to address. Statements such as: “I love you, but I don’t like it when you bite your brother,” can help target what happened while still showing your child you care. Remember to be kind, but firm.
- Take a break from pointing out what your toddler is doing wrong and instead, notice the behaviors she is doing correctly and acknowledge them. “I noticed you started to get upset when your brother took your toy, and you calmly asked me for help - what a great choice.”
About the author:
Lindberg is a freelance writer focusing on parenting, health, and wellness. She is passionate about all things fitness and health and loves spending time with her husband, daughter, and son.
- “Disciplining Your Child.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Retrieved July 24 2017. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/Pages/Disciplining-Your-Child.aspx.
- “10 Techniques for Time-Out for Children.” Ask Dr. Sears. AskDrSears.com. Retrieved July 24 2017. https://www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/10-time-out-techniques.
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