09/02/2014 06:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Secret to Time-Outs That Work

Quick: What's the easiest thing to say when your kid misbehaves? "That's it -- time-out!" Easy, yes. But effective? Not the way most of us do it.

That's one of the surprises I encountered while researching "Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science (and What I've Learned So Far)."

A typical time-out isn't pretty. We get to the end of our rope, threaten a time-out, lecture, march our children to a time-out chair, get even more pissed off when they escape, angrily wrestle them back into their room, worry if they're crying or yell at them to stop having fun in there, make our children apologize afterward, and wrap up with a lecture. In other words, a heck of a lot of attention.

The truly effective technique? Briefly withdrawing attention from your child's misbehavior.

The point is not to punish but to take a break -- and you can go first:

  • "I need to calm-down. I'm going to read in my room for a few minutes."
  • "Time for a calm-down. I'm going to take deep breaths."
  • "We're not going to talk about this until we're both calm."

"Calm-downs," as I started calling them, are used for stopping disruptive or defiant behavior. But think of them as positive, not punitive. Their purpose is to give your child -- and you -- a moment to stop and regain self-control.

Calm-downs vs. time-outs, illustrated (a Slideshare slideshow)


Photo copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press

The key to calm-downs is to plan ahead:

Figure out what calms your child. What should your child be doing during a calm-down? Not "thinking about what she just did." That's not gonna happen; emotions are running too high. Instead, she should do an activity that you know tends to calm her.

Together, brainstorm ideas. It could be taking deep breaths (a 2½-year-old or 3-year-old can do this), punching a pillow, jumping up and down, asking for a hug, looking at a book, drawing, blowing bubbles... whatever works.

Create a Wheel of Choice. Together with your child, write the ideas on a pie chart, illustrate each one with a drawing or photograph, and post it.

Choose a calm-down space. This could be a corner of the house or a spot in your child's room -- a place your child chooses for herself. Make it cozy. Make it a place your child wants to go even when it's not time to cool off.

Here's the surprising thing: When it's time for a calm-down, it's not necessary to send your child away. That's because the key is withdrawing attention from the misbehavior, not necessarily the child. You could say, "Would you like to go to your calm-down space, or should I go to mine?" You could even say, "Would you like to sit next to me while you calm down?"

Save the lesson for later -- when everyone is calm. Ask questions in a nonjudgmental tone: "What happened there?" "What can you do differently next time?" "What do we need to do to make this right?"

Parents report that calm-downs are less frustrating for everyone:

"We've already seen a positive change in our girls (4 and 2) since we started using it." (Amazon review)

"The calm down technique is really really good. It's very effective and I find it so helpful for myself as well as my daughter. Thank you!" (Facebook comment)

Both calm-downs and time-outs send the message that the defiant or disruptive behavior needs to stop. But only one teaches your child a truly valuable skill: how to calm herself down whenever she's feeling out of control.