Time Outs for Toddlers

Welcome to the crazy world of toddlers: that challenging time of life when every parent’s precious baby hits their teens (in months 🙂 ); when children are embarking on a process called individuation. This means they are trying to figure out all the ways they are not you. It’s a season often rich with whining, and “no,” and hitting, and worst of all, tantrums.

We all try to do our best bring out the best in our child: sticking to daily routines, avoiding grocery shopping when Susie should be napping, praising good behavior, encouraging Billy to use his words. But even the best-laid plans can quickly go awry, and our little angel suddenly challenges our authority with a downright ugly display.

How is a loving parent, trying to raise a secure, confident child, going to respond? What is the best way to meet this negative behavior straight on?

Time outs have been around a long time (1958, to be precise 🙂 ). The classic method of isolating a misbehaving child in a boring spot for a minute per year of age has been a staple many of us have recommended for years. While it may be quite effective in children 3 years of age and older, it has seemed to me to be less effective for younger children, especially toddlers.

Edward Christopherson, Ph.D., a long-time Clinical Psychologist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, really changed my approach to toddler behavior with his classic little book: Beyond Discipline: Parenting That Lasts a Lifetime, published in 1998.

The crux of Dr. Christopherson’s approach is the withdrawal of your attention as the “time-out.” Hannah wants your attention; her whining is in part intended to gain your attention. Withdrawing your attention can have a powerful effect.

So let’s role-play: You and Andrew are reading a book together when suddenly he starts whining. You are allowed just 3 words. The first two are “time out,” and the third names the offense; in this case “whining,” As soon as you say these words, simply rotate your body so he can’t see you, or walk away. BUT, instant Andrew drops the “whine index” even 10%, you must reinforce his action by responding to the desire that you think precipitated the whining.

Andrew is clever, so he will likely re-escalate. Therefore, don’t repeat the cycle of “time-outs” more than 3 times before moving on.

The power of this method comes from frequent repetition, for offenses large and small. Try to stay calm and confident as you utter each 3-word phrase. You are not punishing Hannah; you are helping her grow into a happy adjusted child. Good Luck!