5 Discipline Tips for When Time-Outs Don’t Work

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At least once a week during dinnertime, my 3-year-old daughter pushes every single one of my buttons, provoking me to raise my voice and send her to time-out. Immediately, she makes her way to her “spot” in the adjoining room, but I know it’s not going to end easily. As soon as she plops down, she begins to cry so hard she’s on the verge of vomiting, and I begin to wonder if I’m doing this discipline thing right.

I tell her to “breathe,” and we continue this way until my heart can’t take it anymore. I invite her back to the table. She tells me she’s sorry, agrees what she did was wrong and says she won’t do it again. I believe her—until next time.

This unhealthy cycle has not only created stress for my entire family, it’s also given my husband and me serious doubts regarding our approach to discipline. I can’t help but wonder: If we don’t get this under control now, will her behavior evolve into something worse? Will these weekly bouts of emotional distress create larger emotional issues in the long run? Why does everyone else swear by time-outs when they don’t work for our child?!

Dr. Peter Stavinoha, pediatric psychologist, dad and co-author of the book “Stress-Free Discipline,” explains to, “Parenting and discipline, it’s not a cookbook approach that parents should take. Parents have to be flexible, and they have to adapt to conditions of their family.”

Dr. Pete says punishment, such as time-outs, shouldn’t be used as the “primary tool to get children to behave the way we want. We have so many other tools, and certainly negative consequences are one tool in the group, but there are many other things, in fact, other things that are more potent.” It turns out discipline is so much more than simply punishing your child for bad behavior.

According to Dr. Pete’s co-author, journalist Sara Au, discipline is the act of shaping your child’s behavior toward the outcome you want by using it as a means of education. She has found in some cases that she needs to control herself to “react in the correct way—to react in a way that’s going to teach my child something and not just show them I’m upset with what they’re doing.”

If you’re searching for a solution for your child’s behavioral issues because time-outs just aren’t working, here are five expert tips for a more positive approach:

1. Be thoughtful about your reaction as a parent.

If your child acts out, slow down, count to 10 and be thoughtful about what you’re doing, Sara advises. She suggests asking yourself—before taking action—if your reaction will make it more or less likely your child will repeat the behavior again. In the end, your action might not be perfect, “but if you’re thoughtful about it, you’re going to do it in a good way that’s going to be positive.”

Dr. Pete says doing a time-out for the sake of doing a time-out, for example, is “not likely to be nearly as effective” as being thoughtful in your actions. He says the entire process can happen within a matter of seconds, once parents get into the habit.

2. Look to time-ins more than time-outs.

While a time-out isolates your child for a certain period as punishment for bad behavior, a time-in gives parents and children the opportunity to share quality time and a positive experience.

According to Sara, how the two work together is “really crucial.” She says the positive relationship you cultivate with your child during a time-in “gives you a favorable advantage” when working with other strategies, like a time-out.

“Your child will react more positively to your directions and reinforcements, will feel comfortable opening up his or her feelings to you, and will feel safe and secure in the parent-child relationship,” Sara says.

3. Save yelling for emergencies.

Studies have reported that yelling at kids increases their symptoms of depression and problems with behavior. However, Sara believes yelling has its place in parenting, such as in emergencies. It should be used to say, “stop what you’re doing right now,” in situations impacting your child’s safety, such as playing too close to the road.

To make sure yelling doesn’t lose its effect, Sara tells parents who have a tendency to yell to “change the times you use it and try to reserve it for only those exacerbating circumstances where you really need it.” And for non-emergency situations when you may want to yell, she suggests lowering your voice and speaking very slowly to your child instead.

4. Praise your child for doing things correctly.

With the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it’s often easy to overlook your child’s good deeds; after all, the difficulties are so much easier to spot. However, Sara believes you shouldn’t underestimate the power of praising positive behavior—big or small.

“Even if you’re at your wit’s end and you don’t feel your child has done anything positive lately, sit down and really think about it, and you can find something,” Sara says. “They will vacuum that praise, and it will lay a foundation for future good behavior.”

5. Coach your child.

This universal strategy, which is one of 16 described in “Stress-Free Discipline,” requires parents to tell their children up front exactly how they expect them to act. This is especially important if your child has recurring or previous issues related to the situation-at-hand.

“Sometimes calling out—very consciously and concretely—what the expectations are can be effective, because it makes the child mindful. It lets them know, here’s how to do this and be successful at it,” Dr. Pete says.

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