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Disciplining Toddlers: Time In or Time Out?

We ask top child-raising experts about the pros and cons of using timeouts.
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD

What do you do when your adorable toddler engages in not-so-adorable behavior, like hitting the friend who snatches her toy, biting Mommy, or throwing her unwanted plate of peas across the room? Is it time for…timeout?

Timeout -- removing a child from the environment where misbehavior has occurred to a "neutral," unstimulating space -- can be effective for toddlers if it's used in the right way, says Jennifer Shu, MD, an Atlanta pediatrician, editor of Baby and Child Health and co-author of Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed With Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup and Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality.

"Especially at this age, timeout shouldn't be punitive. It's a break in the action, a chance to nip what they're doing in the bud."

Timeouts shouldn't be imposed in anger, agrees Elizabeth Pantley, president of Better Beginnings, a family resource and education company in Seattle, and author of several parenting books, including The No-Cry Discipline Solution. "The purpose of timeout is not to punish your child but to give him a moment to get control and reenter the situation feeling better able to cope." It also gives you the chance to take a breath and step away from the conflict for a moment so you don't lose your temper.

Timeouts: Not for Every Kid

Some experts insist that timeouts work for all, but Shu and Pantley disagree. "For some kids who just hate to be alone, it's a much bigger punishment than it's worth, especially with young toddlers," says Shu. "They get so upset because you're abandoning them that they don't remember why they're there, and it makes things worse." She suggests holding a child like this in a bear hug and helping her calm down.

You can also try warding off the kind of behavior that might warrant a timeout with "time-in." That means noticing when your children's behavior is starting to get out of hand and spending five or 10 minutes with them before they seriously misbehave. "It's like a preemptive strike," Shu says. "Once they've gotten some quality time with you, you can usually count on reasonably OK behavior for a little while."


Toddler Discipline Dos & Don'ts

Shu says a good stage to initiate timeouts is when your toddler is around age 2. Here are a few guidelines.

  • Do remove your child from the situation.
  • Do tell him what the problem behavior was. Use simple words like "No hitting. Hitting hurts."
  • Don't berate your child.
  • Do place her in a quiet spot -- the same place every time, if possible. For young toddlers, this may have to be a play yard or other enclosed space.
  • Don't keep him there long -- the usual rule of thumb is one minute per year of age.
  • Do sit down with your child after timeout is over and reassure her with a hug while you "debrief" by saying something like, "We're not going to hit anymore, right?"
  • Don't belabor what the child did wrong. Instead, ask her to show you how she can play nicely.
Reviewed on September 15, 2013

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