Retooling Timeouts

Sulking African American boy sitting on sofa
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When young-child tantrums start to wane by age 4, parents can begin to encourage self-control as a child's next developmental step. Retooling timeouts is an effective way to teach self-control:


Optimally, you begin this education before the timeout is needed. First, tell your children these timeouts are meant to help them stop and think about their actions so they can make better choices. (When used as a training tool, the timeout is not used as a punishment.)


During the initial talk, children can choose a timeout location. It should be around the periphery of the general living area. This distinguishes these timeouts from punishment, where the child may be sent to a bedroom, away from the family. A favored blanket or stuffed animal can be placed in the location to help children self-soothe and think things through.


The purpose is to help kids understand that for every challenge, there are choices for their behavior. For each choice, there is a consequence. Some consequences are good, and some are unpleasant. To help kids understand this concept, you can draw and talk about the "choices" model (see model below). Have children name the model. You can use this term instead of timeout, if you like.

Graphic showing a large blue circle representing the problem, 3 green lines extending from the bottom of the blue circle representing choices, and 3 small red circles at the end of each green line representing consequences.

Timeouts can be used any time children need to correct their behavior or attitude so they can avoid punishment. Should a child refuse this option, then punishment for defiance is warranted.


When children are sent for these timeouts, they only need to stay as long as it takes to calm down and verbally identify the problem. Once they exercise self-control, kids can be rewarded with a hug or praise.


After a successful timeout, parents and children should review the scenario together to identify behavioral options for the current problem, along with the consequences for each good or poor choice.

Helping kids understand this model of choices and consequences gives them a tool for making better decisions as they grow.

This article first appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of Thriving Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Thriving Family, a marriage and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family. Get Thriving Family delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
Copyright © 2016 by Mary Martin. Used by permission.

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