If “No!” seems to make up half your toddler’s speech, you’re not alone. As toddlers begin to understand their power and limitations, they’ll test every boundary they can. Instituting some form of time-out is a process of trial and error, but ultimately it’s one of the most effective ways you can help your child understand the differences between positive and negative behaviors.
Gauge Your Child’s Readiness
A 14-month-old can’t understand the concept of a time-out like a 3-year-old will. A young toddler probably won’t equate “sitting in this spot” with “because I hit the cat.” It’s best to wait until your child turns 2 before instituting time outs. For a younger toddler, use redirection to show your child that certain behaviors aren’t acceptable. For instance, if your toddler draws on the walls with crayons, say “Crayons are for paper only” and set him up with some construction paper. If you sense your toddler is doing naughty things on purpose to get a rise out of you, he’s probably ready to start time-outs.
Once you’ve judged that your child is old enough for time-outs, designate a certain spot in your home. For a young toddler, sitting still in a chair can be too challenging, especially if he’s flailing and crying. Pick a spot that’s removed from the TV and his toys and is physically safe for him. A corner of a spare bedroom, a patch of carpet at the bottom of the stairs or a small step stool placed in the kitchen can all work. You don’t have to restrict time-outs to your home, though, and you can institute one even while you’re out and about. Pull the car over and sit with him on a patch of grass or wheel him out of the grocery store to sit on a bench for a few minutes.
Isolating a toddler will only contribute to the already-forming separation anxieties that young children have. Rather than making his time-out seem like a rejection, make yourself a part of it to help him understand it’s for his own benefit. Sit quietly next to him or, if he’s flailing and needs to calm down, hold him on your lap. Give him plenty of snuggles when he’s displaying positive behavior so he doesn’t feel the need to act out just to get some hugs. When you’re frustrated and too irritated to stay calm, ask another family member to sit with him while you take a break of your own.
The commonly used strategy of “one minute of time out per year of age” should work once your toddler turns 3, but a young toddler might find two minutes to be too long to sit still, and won’t end up learning much from the experience. When you’re beginning time-outs, set a timer for one minute or 90 seconds and explain “Biting your sister is not OK. You need to sit here until you hear the timer beep.” Place the timer out of his sight so he can spend the time thinking rather than watching the seconds tick by. If he runs away, calmly pick him up and return him to the spot and explain that you need to start the timer over again. When time’s up, give suggestions on ways he can better handle frustration the next time.