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How does a time-out work?

post #1 of 9
Thread Starter 

Our 3 yr old has become so aggressive in the last 6 months.  He hits and bites his 11 month old sister, hits me, hits DH.  He had to leave tumbling class for head-butting other kids.


We say, "don't hit, hitting hurts" but that is worth nothing.  The Dr. Sears books say give your biggest tirade about how that is not to happen again.  Yeah right, is all I can say.  We have recently started trying to do time outs, we put him in a corner of the dining room (no toys, etc.) But he does not stay there, so one of us has to physically restrain him while he punches and bites and drools and nearly vomits.  This can go on for an hour.  They say make time outs brief, but if we say he has to calm himself first then that is impossible.


Recently I tried to do deep breathing exercises with him, but that makes it actually fun for him, I think.  He now asks for me to do the time out with him and laughs it off and still doesn't listen.


As I write this he is now going on an hour with DH and a "time-out".  It is awful...DH has talked about spanking being the alternative.  That is just not an option in my book. 


Is this normal 3 yr old behaviour?  What are we doing wrong with our time-outs?!






post #2 of 9

If you are pushing the child to a point where he is hysterical and near vomiting as a result of panic, you aren't doing a time-out, you are effectively torturing the poor kid.  I mean really- keeping at it for that long when he is THAT upset?  Yikes.  If sitting in a corner doesn't work, it's time to try a different approach that won't scare him to death (I don't do well in confined spaces, I'd probably react the same way your son does if someone tried to make ME sit in a corner.)


I say this as a mom who DOES employ  modified time out with my toddlers.  I chose this path because my older toddler was also being physically aggressive and nothing else worked.  In his case, I don't move him to a specific location.  I ask him to sit down right where he is while I tend to any need the other child has.  I then address the child who was behaving inappropriately by sitting on the floor with him and reaffirming that we don't hit/bite/push etc.  I explain that if he can't play nicely, he'll have to play on his own for a while, and tell him to get up on his own when he is ready to play gently.  He will usually fuss for a moment when he is 'caught' and asked to sit, but as soon as I am talking with him about why he was asked to sit down he is able to listen well.  Because I catch it in the moment and respond in the moment instead of interrupting it and taking him away from the spot, it seems to have a pretty reasonable impact.  Wen we first started, I had to help him sit- but that only lasted for two times.  Now he'll often sit himself down for a break when he catches himself. I do not use any particular block of time- and simply let him regain control of his actions- usually this is less than 30 seconds.


My son will be three in a few days, and has a language delay meaning that his communication skills are NOT those of a child his age.This approach has been effective with him for a few months now.  My younger son isn't 'there' yet, but we do remove him when he is being physically aggressive as well.  He isn't yet able to self-regulate to stay in one spot and discuss things yet, so I simply remove him and either hold him or put him in a separate area until he has settled down.  He isn't as aggressive as his older brother- who often is acting out of sensory seeking behavior more than anything else.  



post #3 of 9

Typically, time outs are one minute for every year old the child is.  So, a 3 year old would have a 3 minute time out.  The point is not really punishment--but more to reset the child...remove him/her from the situation that is causing issues.  It's OK if he likes the deep breathing--that's actually good.  Doing that will help give him a skill to use going forward.  Remember, that your goals are long term.  How do you want your DS to handle anger or frustration when he's older? 


You might enjoy this Youtube clip by Jane Nelson on when time outs don't work:





post #4 of 9
Thread Starter 

Thanks for the responses.


Umsami, thank you for the youtube link.  I, too, am pleased that he likes when I do the breathing and counting with him.  But then he started to think it was a game and special one-on-one time with me.  And I worry that he still doesn't get that he can't hurt his little sister. 


Insidevoice, "yikes" is right.  I don't like it when DH drags it out that long with him.  (And it isn't a confined space, even sitting in his room with him will elicit the same response.)  You say you only had to help your son sit a few times.  What if he did not sit?  What if he continued hitting until you restrained him which then caused a panicky tantrum?  I ask this because this is what would happen with DS.


As an update, the time-out did end last night...It ended with DS finally calming down and asking DH if they could count together (after about 40 minutes), so they counted to two minutes and that was it.  So maybe the deep breathing and counting is the way to go?  I just don't know.

post #5 of 9

I think that's really positive that he wanted to do the counting.


The one suggestion I'd give regarding his little sister is to praise him when you see him being kind/gentle to her.  "Oh, you're such a good big brother to DD." " You share really well with her."  "You're so gentle with DD like a big brother should be", etc.  Honestly, praising the good behavior can often be more powerful, and more motivating, then punishing for the bad behavior.


Also, you can try and use humor and other tactics if you see him being mean to her... Rub your eyes... say, "Oh my, I think my eyes must be broken.  Because I know that DS would never hurt/hit/bite DD.  Please, DS, please come help fix your poor Mommy's eyes.  I think I need kisses on both eyes to make them better." Etc. :)

post #6 of 9

An hour is very long time for 3 year .  3 yo for anyone.have short term memory that long.  3-5 minutes at this age. In his own room. Turn on a timer. Calm stern voice .  Emphasise behaviour not a person.  "This is time for you to be alone and to think about this behaviour"


This should be last resort. Praise him for good behaviour with the sister.



post #7 of 9

Hi kdaisy, sounds like things have been tough at your house - we've been there too! We also use a modified version of timeout. Originally, I did the "stay there for 3 minutes" thing, like others have mentioned, but often when the time was up, my daughter would go into hysterics. So it wasn't serving to calm her down or be an effective consequence. Then I switched to calling it "calm-down" time, so I would ask her to go to her room to calm down and have some quiet time. She was allowed to come out whenever she wanted (whether that be 10 seconds or 10 minutes), as long as she was calm and ready to play gently. For the most part, this has worked really well because she is more in control of the situation. She can be in her room, play, lay in her bed, do whatever she needs to do to get the bad feelings out. Usually, there are no tears involved at all. If she is crying, I always ask if she'd like me to stay with her, hug her, help her calm down, etc, but usually she says she wants to be left alone, so I tell her that I'll come back and check on her in five minutes.


There have been times when she's really out of control and won't stay in her room, and I have to keep carrying her back. Those are terrible terrible times. Rather than try to keep her there for a set amount of time, I will at some point say, time out is over! That way, I've still followed through, and I'm in charge, but not having to physically hold her in a spot. That just becomes a power struggle with nothing positive coming out of it.


I hope things get better for you - 3 is hard! By the way, I don't think you're "effectively torturing" your child. You are doing the best you can and trying to find a better way. Good luck! stillheart.gif

post #8 of 9

Three is tough!!  I swore I would never use time-outs, but when DD was 3 I was desperate and tried it.  That was a miserable failure for us.  I abandoned it the day DD told me when she got bigger she would make me have time-outs.  Honestly, what worked best for us was for me to change my outlook.  I realized that my walking, talking kiddo wasn't as grown up as she sounded.  She was still mostly a toddler.  So when she got violent, I saw her as a little girl who wanted to do what was right but just couldn't always stop her body in time.  I would get down to her level, tell her I understood she was upset, but that I had to keep her and everyone else safe, so I was going to help her control her body until she regained control.  Then I would hold her while she raged and kicked and screamed until she calmed down.  I never punished her for hitting, etc., because I know she didn't want to hurt anybody, she just didn't have control of her emotions and her body.  Now that she's 4, she's much better at controlling her body.  She asks for space when she's upset, and as long as that need is respected, no one gets hit.  (When someone doesn't give her that space, we still have issues.)  I think really, you have to treat him like a toddler at this age. He still mostly is.  If he can't control his little body, he can't be left alone in a situation with other kids where somebody could get hurt.  He seems so grown up and you NEED him to be grown up because you have an 11-month old baby, but he just can't grow up any faster than he is.

post #9 of 9

I think time-out is best used as one part of a bigger approach that focuses more on being proactive. At age 3, your son is still working on developing skills like impulse control, communication, identifying his feelings, problem-solving, etc. These are all skills a person needs in order to handle life's frustrations in more appropriate ways. I've found that when it comes to things like aggression, it's really helpful to focus on helping my child learn better ways of coping with those frustrating situations. You may find that it helps to keep track of when he becomes aggressive, under what circumstances. It's likely to be very predicatable, and you'll begin to see a pattern. Maybe he hits his sister when she gets in his space or tries to take a toy, for example, or maybe when he's very tired. Understanding when and why he hits can help you understand what he needs to learn in order to handle those situations without hitting, and how you can prevent some of those situations from occurring. A really good book for ideas about teaching skills is Raising A Thinking Child by Myrna Shure. 


I've found that time-out works best as a time/place for a child to calm down, rather than as a consequence meant to deter a behavior. Some people find that having a cozy "calm-down" place helps, I find it best to just have my child sit somewhere near me wherever I am. I also find that the more low-key and neutral we are in giving time-out, the better. In fact in general the more neutral and simply matter-of-fact we are in all our responses to difficult behavior, the better. We've found that more dramatic our own response, the more attention (positive or negative) we're giving a behavior in the moment, the less effective our response is. Better for all of us to calm down, and discuss things later. A simple "no hitting" or "I will not let you hit," along with removing the child from the situation to calm down is all that's needed in the moment. I found that saying "you're angry. I will not let you hit. You need to sit until you're calm," really worked well. On the occasion that one of my girls refused to sit in a specific place after I directed her there, rather than tack on another struggle I'd just stand nearby (but keeping her contained to the general area). She'd flop on the floor and have a tantrum, I'd wait it out saying no more than "we'll talk when you're calm," eventually she'd calm down. The more I talked, the more I tried to make her sit in a specific place, the worse the situation would be. 


Another thing I've found helpful sometimes is to do what your dh did in asking your son to count, to sort of move my child from her emotional brain to her thinking brain by asking her a question or asking her to do something (like count, add). Sometimes I would just wonder aloud about something I knew she'd be curious about or want to talk about. I found this most likely to work either before my child was completely overtaken by emotion and flipping out, or just as she was starting to calm slightly. Calming down is such an important skill to learn, as is staying calm when you're frustrated/stressed. I think it's worth spending time working on ways a child can do that, experimenting together and coming up with ideas to try. Cozy corners, counting, blowing bubbles, playing with sand/other sensory stuff, deep breathing...there are so many potential ways to calm down. It can help to have some choices of calming activities handy (but not too many, that can be overwhelming for an upset child).


Keep in mind that he's just 3, so it's going to take repetition for him to learn many things and to replace hitting with new coping skills. Parenting is a lot of lather, rinse, repeat. I think with someone so young you need supervision and as much prevention as is realistic, plus working on helping him learn skills. Time-out fits in there as part of the solution, but it's not (at least ime) *the* solution. 

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