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My Child Won’t Stay in Time Out

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

If you have read my previous article on time outs, you will hopefully now know how to use time outs effectively.  You will also know what kinds of behaviors require time out and how to redeem the moment once the time out is over.  What you may still be wondering, however, is, “What do I do if my child won’t go to or stay in time out?”  If you asked this question, you are not alone.  Here we will explore how you can deal with this common parenting dilemma.

Don’t make it a power struggle.  If you have seen the TV show, SuperNanny, you have likely seen her version of time out in action.  It goes something like this:  child misbehaves, child is sent to time out (or dragged there by a parent), child gets up and runs through the house, parent chases said child through the house to repeat the previous steps until both are exhausted and the timer mercifully rings.  I feel that this is an unnecessary struggle that can perpetuate power and control issues.  This approach takes what was just one misbehavior and inevitably creates a series of additional offenses that will have to be addressed as well.

Realize what time out is and what it is not.  Time out is simply that – the clock in your child’s day has stopped.  He has moved outside of the circle of blessing with his behavior or attitude and his day does not move forward until he is ready to make it right and rejoin the rest of the family inside the circle.  It is not a punishment in and of itself.  It is an opportunity for his heart to soften.  There is no magic in the passage of time dictated by a dollar store kitchen timer.  If we can see time out with these glasses, our approach to time out refusal will be much different from that of SuperNanny.

Tell your child what you expect and then detach yourself.  Tell your child to go to time out and that you will know that he is ready for it to begin when he is seated and quiet.  Then (here’s the hard part) walk away.  Yes.  Walk away.  Your work is done for the moment.  After all, your day has not timed out.  You will want to keep a watchful (but unnoticed) eye on your little ones.  Any attempts to engage you with further misbehaviors need to be ignored.  You may want to remove other children from his proximity (“come help Mommy in the kitchen”) because even innocent onlookers can be reinforcing to negative behavior (remember what we learned about positive opposites?).  Any contact (visual, verbal or physical) will be reinforcing to your child in this state.  You want to eliminate all methods of reinforcement.

But, what if . . . .? Right now, you can likely come up with a host of scenarios that will challenge this approach to time out.  What if he picks up something to play with?  What if he screams at me?  What if he runs around the house?  You may have to lose a battle to win the war.  Remember, your child’s day has timed out.  NOTHING happens until that time out is completed.  He is in charge of how tedious he will make this.  You will answer any and all questions with this following phrase, “No. Your day has stopped. You have a time out to complete.”  This means no snack, no T.V., no playing outside.  Nothing.

It will work.  You may have your doubts in the midst of this and wonder if you made a mistake.  You may see your child wandering around the house when he is supposed to be in time out and feel incompetent.  But take a minute and think of these alternatives and the message they would be sending your child:  chasing him around the house (he would get the message he is in charge), throwing your hands up and doing nothing (he would get the message he is not accountable for his behavior), or physically restraining him in the time out area (he would get the message that disobedience keeps you close and engaged).  This disengaged but firm way will achieve the results you want, a submissive and repentant heart.  It may just not happen in the time frame you would prefer.

Keep in mind, time out isn’t your only tool in your parenting tool box.  What works for some children may not work for others.  We need to use our best judgment to decide what consequences will move our child from rebellion to repentance.  Only you, the parent, will know what that is.  You will learn with trial and error.  Parenting is not easy.  But anything worth doing takes work.  If you put the effort in now, you will reap great character-building rewards later.

About the author

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in children and families. CfP is the place she combines some of her very favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She loves encouraging parents to build their families upon Jesus, the one true Cornerstone. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring children.

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