If you can't smack your kids, can you do this?

Written on the 14 April 2013 by Meg Parkinson

Last week we posted an article about smacking and why you shouldn’t smack your kids. Wow. There were some strong responses. Some very angry people and also a lot of people who agreed vehemently.  We also received a lot of requests for different approaches to discipline. So today we get to take some time out with Meg Parkinson who is a parenting educator and examines the use of time out.
Please note that we are NOT publishing this in order to judge parents or children or to tell you how to parent. We are just looking at different opinions. Meg writes:

Many parents cringe when time out is mentioned as a strategy. It is fraught with confusion. There just seems to be so much conflicting information and advice. Most of which seems to view it as the ultimate punishment for any crime. It is a jail sentence. Children are required to sit in purgatory, in isolation and shame and to ‘think about how naughty they are’. A lot of parents say it doesn’t work. It doesn’t usually, not if you use it in this punitive manner.

Time out means time away from the situation in which the problem behaviour occurs. As adults, we know that if we are having a problem at work, or having trouble dealing with another person, it is best to take a break. When we come back to it, we find that the situation is much easier to handle.

Children need breaks too, especially when they are overstimulated, making poor behavioural choices or are generally not feeling in control. So, I see time out as more of a holiday, a little break away from whatever it is that is causing the problem. It is a chance to regroup before coming back and having another go. This is a great habit for children to learn early. (We all know that if we don’t get the opportunity for a break, we can very easily have our own tantrums!) Your kids are lucky; they have you to say, ‘You know what, it looks like you need to take a break. It’s time to go to your room for some quiet time.’  Afterwards, they can come back refreshed and ready to show us what we know they can do, and how they can ask for things politely, and how they can sort out whose turn it is on the computer! Personally, I have always found holidays in a comforting, calming place much more attractive than jail as an option to help me get back on track. Children seem to agree.

If a few basic principles are observed, time out can be a very effective and positive way to overcome challenging behaviours. Time out is not to make them mind; it is to teach them how to calm down when they are not dealing very well with a situation.

The main points:

1.  Carefully choose the behaviour that you want to use time out for. It is essential to use it consistently, so you must be sure which behaviour you want to use it for.
Remember, it is much easier to stay in charge of  ‘holiday makers’ who understand that when they are feeling grumpy or are hurting others, they get a free trip to the sanctuary of their room, than trying to control disgruntled ‘criminals’ in jail cells.

2.  Tell your child during a peaceful moment that whenever the chosen behaviour occurs he or she will have to go to a room, it could be their bedroom, a favourite place in the house, a cosy beanbag. Explain to them that they will be taking a break, let them choose things that they could do during this time that they find calming. Show them what they can do if they’re really angry, such as pummelling pillows. (Remember, it is okay to be angry, but it is not ok to take anger out on people. Teach them how  to let the emotion out in appropriate ways.)  It is a really good idea to role-play what will happen, practice taking them into their room calmly and helping them get set up for their holiday.

Unfortunately the times and places that children need a ‘break’ are not always convenient. If you know that your child will probably need some time out while shopping, at the beginning of the trip, find a place that would be suitable that you could go to (preferably away from fluorescent lights which are notorious for causing overstimulation in children and are rife in shopping centres).  Or, if you know it might be necessary while visiting friends, ask your friends if there is a place he or she could go. Wherever possible show them the designated ‘holiday spot’ so every body is prepared.
Something to think about: not all people like relaxing holidays, some people relax through action and energy release. The aim of timeout is to flip the child out of the negative, so some children’s timeout could be running around the backyard 10 times, or jumping on the trampoline for 3 minutes.

3. Immediately, when the behaviour occurs, remove the child to time-out, or if sufficiently co-operative send him/her straight to time out. Do not discuss the situation, do not threaten, scold, nag or explain. If you take the child to time-out do it swiftly and do not be trapped into a struggle.

3. In terms of how long they need to stay in timeout, I think it is just until they are calm and the holiday has had the effect you are looking for. It could be 30 seconds or an hour, the amount of time they are expected to be in timeout is something you need to discuss in a quiet moment beforehand as well.

4. Remove or protect vulnerable things before using time -out, if damage is likely to occur.

5.  Remember that even though you are giving your child a holiday, it is still an enforced holiday, you have decided they need it. Sometimes they might not see things the same way as you, even with the reframing from the negative jail experience to the positive holiday.  If the child is not likely to stay in time-out, give as little attention as possible. Take the child by the hand and guide them back to their time- out place. You can say things like, “I hope you feel better soon, but you know what you have to do now.” If they argue, you can just say, “I’m sorry that you feel that way, in you go, we’ll see you soon.”

6.   When the break is over, either open the door and say ‘you can come out now’, or, if your child is independent enough to come out whenever they feel they are ready, let them do so. Do not discuss the incident, it is over. Say, “It looks like you are ready to have another go.” Or “You seem to be feeling much better now.”

Important points:

*  Act immediately. Every second you delay after the behaviour has occurred reduces the effect.

*  Be consistent. Use time out every time the identified behaviour occurs.

*  Avoid providing inadvertent attention by telling off or reminding. Just do it, do not talk about it.

*   Do not expect miracles. Problem behaviours are often well established and they do not go away overnight. Often they get worse before they get better. It does mean that they are going to get better soon, don’t give up.

*  Stick with it for at least 3 weeks before deciding that it doesn’t work. Most people, who give up, just have not tried nearly long enough.

Remember, time-out is only one strategy from a whole toolbox of positive discipline strategies.


Meg Parkinson holds a Bachelor of Education (Special Education) and a Master of Education in Guidance and Counselling. She is a member of the William Glasser Institute and is accredited to provide training in Choice Theory, Reality Therapy and Lead Management. She also holds a Certificate IV in assessment and Workplace Training. Meg supports parents by teaching simple, easily applied and practical techniques that reduce behaviours causing frustration, anxiety, stress and irritation. She runs classes and offers individual coaching in your home or remotely via Skype. Her style inspires action. Her approach is designed to give you the biggest results with the least amount of effort. Meg’s experience includes 20 years working in the education sector, in special needs - learning support, classroom teaching, gifted and talented education mentor, counselling and facilitation. She has created and facilitated training programs on behavioural management for teachers, principals and parents in Australia and the UK. International leaders in personal effectiveness, Franklin Covey Australia worked with Meg to launch and implement their program ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens’. This process involved the delivery of the program to staff and students in schools throughout Queensland.

Author:Meg Parkinson