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Ask Dr. K: Time-out must be enforced to be effective

DEAR DOCTOR K: You’ve mentioned time-outs as an appropriate way to discipline young children. But they don’t work for my son, at least the way I’m doing them. What can I do differently?

DEAR READER: When children are young, discipline means teaching them self-control and the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. One way to do this is with a time-out.

The technique doesn’t work well for kids younger than 18 months. After that age, however, your child can increasingly understand what you are saying. Explaining to the child calmly what he did wrong adds to the effectiveness of the time-out.

A time-out involves taking a “break” away from a difficult situation and spending time in a less appealing place. A time-out is a chance for your son to cool down and think about his behavior.

The following tips may help make your son’s time-outs more effective:

— Know when to use one. Time-outs are most useful for aggressive, harmful or disruptive behaviors such as hitting, kicking, biting or throwing things — all behaviors that cannot be ignored. That’s because a time-out teaches peaceful problem solving. Time-outs are usually less effective for behaviors that can be ignored, such as temper tantrums or whining.

— Make sure you mean it when you say it. A time-out rarely works if you threaten to use it without following through. Once you’ve decided to give one, no amount of apologizing, tears or negotiation should change that decision.

— Make sure a time-out is actually happening. A time-out must be enforced so that it actually happens. If your child refuses to stay in time-out, place him in the time-out chair and hold him gently but firmly by the shoulders from behind for the duration of time-out. There should be no discussion or negotiation during this time. Don’t sit in the time-out chair yourself and hold the child on your lap. That’s fine to do as positive reinforcement when the child is behaving well. But not when he’s been misbehaving and needs some negative feedback.

— Make sure the place is right. Remember that time-out works because it removes your child from his favorite activities and takes him away from your attention. Make sure the time-out chair is in a boring place, where your son cannot see the television or other people.

Sometimes a time-out will be necessary when you and your child are not in your home. Wherever you are, perhaps in a shopping mall, be sure that the location you choose for the time-out will be really boring for your child. An important part of making a time-out effective is making it boring, as kids hate to be bored, even more than we do.

— Make sure time-out doesn’t last too long. Do not keep your child in time-out for more than one minute for each year of age (for example, about three minutes for a 3-year-old).

— Finally, praise good behavior. Make sure your child knows that he will get more attention from you for positive behaviors than for negative behaviors.

Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.

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