Time out works best when it is employed in a loving home where kids are getting regular doses of quality and special time. Research makes it clear that the most effective parenting style is both warm and firm; so, it’s not enough to be just firm or just warm, a mixture of the two is best. Also, the etymology of the word “discipline” is “to teach” not “to kick ass.”
There are two paths for your child to land in time out. The first one is to refuse your directive (e.g., to do a chore). The second is to do something inappropriate that is worthy of a punishment. In the first instance, time out should be implemented if your child does not comply by the third command; at the point of the second command sound tense and issue a warning that time out will follow if your child doesn’t comply. (Try to leave only five seconds in between commands to lessen your chance of getting angry and losing IQ points.) The second instance happens as soon as you witness your child doing the inappropriate behavior.
Your child should sit in the time out chair for one minute per year that s/he has lived outside the womb. This time guideline should not be shared with your child, nor is it usually advisable to display a timer for him or her. Time out is punishment and it is more punishing if your child does not know how long it will last (i.e., the real intervention is the threat of time out at the second command, so this should be an unpleasant experience that is worth avoiding, from your child’s perspective anyway).
The time out location should be something akin to a dining room chair that is moved away from entertainment centers or things that can be kicked or grabbed.
Your child should be ignored while in time out (i.e., no one should speak to your child while s/he is in the time out chair, especially siblings).
Once the minimum sentence has elapsed check and see if two conditions have been met: your child is sitting quietly and your child is either willing to comply with the original command or is willing to offer a sincere apology for the infraction that landed him or her in time out. If one of those conditions has not been satisfied then just walk away and start a new minimum sentence (e.g., another five minutes for a five year old); in this instance, you would usually not indicate to your child that his or her time out has been extened.
If your child is in time out for an infraction against someone else, arrange for him or her to make reparation later. That is, once time out has been finished, and everyone is calmed down, it’s a good idea to do a psychological autopsy of what happened. The goal would be to get your child to suggest a plan of reparation (e.g., using his own allowance to replace the magazine he ripped up). However, you may offer the plan if your child can’t or won’t cooperate. This is done more for the sake of your child’s character development than it is for the sake of the aggrieved.
If your child gets out of the time out chair, then physical restraint may be in order. The method is you (but only if you’re calm) sit behind the time out chair and cross your child’s arms on his or her chest, holding him or her by both wrists and using only the amount of pressure needed to keep him or her in place. The time out minimum sentence starts once you can leave without your child leaving the chair. (There are other methods that can be used in these instances but see my parenting book or a child psychologist for those.)
I would avoid praising or encouraging your child after time out is over. S/he did the crime, paid the time and now everyone gets back to normal without any parades. However, the next time your child handles the same sort of a situation better (e.g., s/he got into time out for refusing to pick up toys but then picks up his or her toys well the next day), I might give a little bit of extra, but proportionate, positive attention to that moment.
There are several important aspects of time out that I’m not covering here as this is merely a blog (e.g., how to communicate to your child about it, the rationale for each step). However, I’ve covered these matters in Chapter Five of my parenting book or your local friend child psychologist can likely give you what you need.
If you have a regular call to do time out, I would think of that as a symptom. And, like any persisting symptom, I’d err on the side of having it evaluated sooner rather than later. For a referral click here.
Good luck! (Next week I’ll review punishment strategies for teens.)