Time Out for the Time-Out Chair
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
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A lot of parents try using a Time-Out Chair with their preschoolers (and even older children) only to find out it doesn’t work all that well. The punishment doesn’t seem to teach kids not to do something. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get a child to stay in the Time-Out Chair and parents get more angry, not less angry, as things go along.
The problem comes in thinking of the Time-Out Chair as punishment. It’s not. It’s a gift.
A child sent to sit in the Time-Out Chair either sees this as a challenge – can you keep him there? – or by the time he gets there, he can’t remember what he did wrong. Remember that small children don’t have a good idea of cause-and-effect and they have very short memories. Older kids sent to Time-Out may know what they did but they don’t spend the time in Time-Out contemplating how they will do better next time. Instead, older kids spend Time-Out sitting and seething about how mean Mom is or how sneaky his sister is to have got him into trouble. If he’s not thinking bad thoughts, he’s just sitting, thinking about whatever. He’s not learning anything.
And the whole point of discipline is to learn something, to learn how to behave. And the behavior we want to teach is self-control.
Kids get into trouble because they didn’t think ahead or they let their worst impulses take over. Time-out is a chance to reset the action, to regain self-control, and to learn what went wrong. A Time-Out Chair can help with this, but not as punishment. It has to be a place of safety and calm.
Here’s an example. Janie starts throwing things around the room, shoving her baby brother and generally creating mayhem. Mom captures Janie in her arms and says, “Whoa, Janie! Calm down! Come sit with me.” Both Mom and Janie sit together on the couch or on the floor.
“Janie, you’re heart is really racing! Feel your heart right here…. We need to slow that down. Let’s take some deep breaths….” Sit still together, trying to control breathing, getting back to calm.
If Janie struggles and tries to get away, remember that she wouldn’t have been able to sit still in the Time-Out Chair by herself anyway. She needs your support. And remember that feeling out of control is not comfortable for her. It’s not comfortable for anyone. Helping her to notice her uncomfortable feelings and find a way back to calmness is what you want to do. It’s what you want her to learn: how to recognize when she’s out of control and find ways to get back in control.
Once Janie is back in control is the time to say, “So, are you feeling sick? You were throwing things around and hitting the baby. What was all that about?” These questions would have had no effect if Janie were still out of control. Getting your child back to calm is the first step in thinking about behavior and what to do better next time.
Now is the time to talk calmly about handling feelings, and then perhaps to pick up the thrown toys. Sitting in a Time-Out Chair alone cannot accomplish this. Kids who are out of control need to take a time-out but they still need your help to get there.
Time-out is good for parents, too. When you start to feel frazzled, announce that you’re going to take a time-out because you’re starting to get angry. Modeling the behavior you want kids to learn is always a good strategy.
We all need a time-out now and again. Adults have learned how to do this but children need to be taught. The most important thing we can teach our children are how to control themselves. Learning how to take a time-out is a key part of this.