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Correcting Misbehavior with Time-Out

The Priority Misbehavior
A priority misbehavior is a specific action that you consider inappropriate or problematic. It is a priority because you want to deal with it now. It is a misbehavior that you want your child to stop doing. The priority misbehavior you select must be very specific. Examples of specific misbehaviors are fighting, arguing, talking back, and swearing. Terms such as obnoxious, mean, and rude are not good priority misbehaviors. These terms are not specific; they do not describe the misbehavior in a meaningful way. We all understand what these terms mean in a general sense. The problem is, these terms can be misinterpreted and create arguments. What is obnoxious to you may not be obnoxious to your child.

You may need to practice being specific. If your children misbehave a lot, it is easy to lose sight of the actual misbehaviors: "My child is always in trouble," "He never does anything the way I want him to," "She never has a good day," "He gets so obnoxious I could scream," "That child will never behave." If you find yourself thinking this way, consider exactly what it is that your child does. Carmen will not do things when asked. Francis hits his sister. Clint does not do his chores on time.

When the priority misbehavior occurs, tell your child what he has done and send him to time-out. Stay calm. Be firm and assertive.

Mom: "Greg, would you please take out the trash?"
Greg: "I don't feel like it. I'll do it later."
Mom: "Greg, that is not obeying. Go to time-out. You have five minutes."

Once you tell your child that he has earned a time-out, do not change your mind. Some children will suddenly become obedient and cooperative, hoping you will be lenient. Do not be fooled.

Mom: "Greg, that is not obeying. Go to time-out. You have five minutes."
Greg: "Okay. I'll do it now. I'll take out the trash."
Mom: "No. First you have to go to time-out. You can take out the trash when your time is finished."

Greg misbehaved by not taking out the trash when asked. Mom correctly enforced time-out. Greg tried tempting her by conceding to do what Mom asked. Now he has decided that taking out the trash is better than having a time-out. Too late. Do not surrender to these attempts; you will be encouraging your child to tease and plead and argue. Once a rule is broken, enforce the time-out rule.

When you use time-out for the first time, begin with one misbehavior. Choose one misbehavior that you want to decrease. Do not choose the most troublesome misbehavior to start, but choose a more moderate problem. This will familiarize you and your child with time-out procedures before you attempt to tackle the big problems. Be consistent with this beginning misbehavior. Your success here sets the pattern.

When you have the first misbehavior under control, use time-out for a second misbehavior. Be cautious; you want your child to be successful. Moving ahead slowly is much safer than moving too quickly. Add new priority misbehaviors slowly and systematically to ensure feelings of success.

How to Explain Time-Out to Your Children
Sit down with each child separately and explain time-outs. Timing and judgment are critical; choose a time when things are going well. Do not try to explain time-out shortly after a blowup, when you or your child is angry. Explain that a time-out is something that is going to help him behave and make better decisions. Describe time-outs as time sitting alone in the bathroom (or whatever room you are going to use). Explain how the time works--five minutes if he cooperates, longer if there is a problem. The timer will tell your child when time-out is over. If you suspect that your child may be uncooperative, explain the consequences of these actions in more detail. Finally, describe the priority misbehavior to your child. Discuss this thoroughly and give examples. Be sure he understands the misbehavior.

It is important to ignore any negative remarks that your child may make while you are explaining time-out. Don't expect enthusiasm. Simply explain time-out as specifically and as clearly as possible. Here is an example of a father and mother explaining time-out to their seven-year-old son.

Dad: "Greg, could you come here, please? Mom and I would like to talk with you about something."
Greg: "What do you want?"
Mom: "You have been doing pretty well with your behavior lately in most things, but there are still times when you do not do what you are told."
Dad: "We want to tell you about something that is going to help you behave and make better decisions about your behavior."
Greg: "What is it?"
Mom: "It's called time-out."
Dad: "Time-out means going to the bathroom and sitting by yourself. If you go right away and you do not argue, you only have to sit for five minutes."
Greg: "What if I don't go?"
Mom: "If you argue or don't go right away, then you will have to sit for ten minutes."
Dad: "If you yell, or kick, or slam the bathroom door, then you will add five more minutes."
Greg: "Get real. I'll be in there until I'm ten."
Dad: "Do you have any questions so far?"
Greg: "What a dumb idea. It will never work for me. I'm too bullheaded. Isn't that what you have been telling me?"
Dad: "When you go to time-out, we will set the timer on the oven for five minutes. When you hear the buzzer, you can come out." Mom: "But if you are noisy in there, or if you choose to have a tantrum in there, the time will not count. We will not start the timer until you are sitting quietly."
Dad: "So the sooner you sit quietly, the sooner you get out."
Mom: "Do you understand how the timer works?"
Greg: "Yes. But I still don't think it will work."
Mom: "If you make a mess in the bathroom, you will have to sit an extra five minutes. You will have to clean it up before you can come out. If you break anything in there, you will have to pay for it out of your allowance."
Dad: "You will go to time-out when you do not do what we ask. When you do not obey us."
Mom: "From now on, when we ask you to do something and you don't do it, you will go to time-out."
Dad: "We hope that you won't have to go in there very often, but the choice is yours. If you obey, you won't need to go in there. It is really up to you."

Write down what you are going to say to your child. Make a list of things you want to discuss ahead of time. Here is an outline that will help you stay on track when explaining time-out to your child.

Explain these points:

  • Time-out is going to help improve behavior.
  • What time-out is.
  • How the time works.
  • The use of the timer.
  • Describe and give an example of the priority misbehavior.
You must remember to:
  • Choose a good time to talk.
  • Ignore any negative comments from your child.
  • Stay calm no matter what happens.


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From How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!. Copyright Sal Severe, 2000. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here or on the book cover. Get a 15% discount with the coupon code FENPARENT.


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