Time Outs – Rethink it.
You hear many parents say it and think it, “I've had enough – go to time out and think about what you've done!” Under the age of 3, this doesn't have the same effect as you may think it does. Often resulting in toddlers sitting a corner, giggling, playing or continuing the behaviour that sent them there in the first place. You can teach a dog to sit, stay and roll over. You can teach your toddler to sit there and say things like “I'm sorry.” but the understanding of what they are doing and saying are just not at a developmentally capable at this age.
Time outs can be a super effective tool when done correctly. When used to help a child (and a parent) calm down, the time out will be effective in this way. When we are frustrated and upset we are physically unable to access the part of the brain that allow use to think clearly. We must calm down first before we are able to think logically.
Time-outs should not be used with children under the age of 3 and half – 4. Until children reach the age of reason (2 and a half – 5 years old) and sometimes later, supervision and distractions are the best tools to use. Even when a child reach the beginning stages of reason, they do not have the maturity and judgment to make logical decisions.
Parents know they cannot allow their children to play near a busy street, unsupervised, even when they think their children “know” better than to run into the street. They don't leave their young children at a park and expect them to logically reason their way home.
Young children need constant supervision. Sometimes removal, kindly and firmly, from what they can't do and guidance to an activity of what they can do is best. Show them what they can do and engage with them. If they pull kitty's tail or hit the hamster too hard, take their hand and gently pet the animal. Repeat what they can do. “Oh, we are 'GENTLE' to kitty. Show kitty gentle. This is how we pet kitty! Repeat, repeat, repeat. You have a very curious explorer to raise now, it's time to teach and repeat.
You may think they know what you want from them. You may think they are learning the skills, but remember young children can read your energy of your feelings and understand you want them to 'do something.' They may even guess at what it is you want such as, “saying sorry.” But they do not understand the logic of your arguments in the way you think they do. It is usually wiser to remove them from the situation, distract them, engage with them, feed them, change them, hug them etc.
Punitive time outs at this age increases the probability that young children will develop a sense of self doubt and shame instead of a sense of autonomy. Which is what they are desperately seeking to do. Autonomy or independence is the skill they are now working on. They learned to walk and you encouraged them, giving them opportunities to learn this new skill. Parents now need to find a way to encourage independence.
Children do better when they feel better. Young children benefit from cooling off, especially if you go with them! One mother learned to use positive time outs successfully with an 18m old. She would say, “Would you like to lie on your comfy pillow for a while?” Sometimes he would toddle off to his pillow and lie down until he felt better. Other times he hesitated and she would ask, “Would you like me to go with you?” The concept of positive time out- a place for cooling off, was understood. It wasn't used as a punishment for a behaviour but a safe place to calm down.
Your attitude is the key to positive vs punitive time outs. They should NOT be used as punishment but as a way to help children feel better and calm down. Children do not have the capability to logically think about their actions and consequences the way adults do. (even some adults can't do it very well) This reasoning required for this is just not developmentally possible between birth and 3.
Parenting tools will not work all the time. Be sure you have more than just time-out in your pocket. Different people need different things to feel better. Some need baths, stuffies, going outside, hugs, feet massage, watching a show, going for a walk etc. You know what you need to calm down, shouldn't you help your child find out what works for them?
Think about what is age appropriate developmentally. At a restaurant for instance it is unreasonable to ask young children to sit for long periods of time, but it is not ok to disturb others. You may have to get up and take the children for walks outside a restaurant once in a while for a movement break. As your teaching 'restaurant etiquette' it will take more than just one or two visits. Try to keep these visits short. This kind of 'outside time or positive time outs' are very effective. They key is to help them develop skills with kindness and love.