What to expect at this ageMost of the time, your grade-schooler acts like a "big kid" who knows how to control herself. But, in fact, she's still hard at work learning to make her way in the world, and testing her own autonomy and the limits of your authority. That means from time to time she may flout your directives and push the limits you impose. And despite her seeming maturity, your child's emotions can still get the better of her, and she may turn on a dime from a happy-go-lucky kid to a pouting, defiant rebel.
When your child crosses the line or gets too worked up for her own good, sometimes the best way to nip the behavior in the bud is to remove her from the activity at hand and give her some quiet time alone, better known as a time-out. This discipline method is a great, non-punitive way to shape behavior. The key is knowing how and when to use the technique. Six strategies for making the most of time-outs:
What to doUnderstand what a time-out is — and isn't. If you don't think of a time-out as punishment neither will your child, and that's as it should be. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to help your grade-schooler cope with common frustrations and modify her behavior. While your child is in a time-out, she's on her own, so don't check on her every few minutes or try to cajole her into drying her tears. And although at times it may require superhuman effort, try not to scold, yell, or speak angrily — the point is to just let her sit in solitude for a few minutes. Quiet time alone allows your child to switch gears and calm down if she's gotten worked up. Just as importantly, it gives you the chance to step aside and not get caught up in your child's struggle. The goal of a time-out is to defuse and redirect an escalating situation in an unemotional way, and to teach your grade-schooler to behave without setting a negative example, the way yelling does.
Time the time-out. When it's called for, impose a time-out swiftly — as immediately after the transgression as possible. In fact, if you sense that your child is winding up, call a time-out before she blows. By this point, your grade-schooler understands what time-outs are all about, so you might even ask her if she thinks she needs some time to calm down. Use an old-fashioned kitchen timer to track the minutes; most experts agree that a minute a year is a good rule of thumb (so a 7-year-old would serve seven minutes). If you leave your child in time-out longer than that, she's likely to shift her focus from calming down to being angry and resentful, which counteracts what the time-out is supposed to do. If your child's progressed to the point where she accepts time-outs without too much struggle, ask her how much time she thinks she needs and have her set the timer herself. This lessens the indignity she's probably feeling (something that matters a lot to an intense, "spirited" child) and gives her some measure of control over the situation. Eventually, she may even call her own time-outs (but don't hold your breath).
Choose the right place. Some experts recommend sending kids to their bedroom for time-outs, while others suggest a less entertaining environment (like a bottom step or a chair in a nearby room). Keep in mind that the purpose of a time-out is for your child to gather herself — you decide where she'll best do this. Whatever you choose, find a time-out spot removed from the activity that set your grade-schooler off. Don't put her somewhere frightening — if she continues to act out, it's okay to close her bedroom door, but locking her in her room or banishing her to a dark pantry or basement may well be fodder for future therapy. Remember: You want to calm her down, not scare her into submission.
No matter where she serves her time, encourage your child to experiment with self-calming techniques. One advantage of bedroom time-outs: If looking at a book, listening to some music, or drawing a picture of her feelings helps your grade-schooler wind down, she'll learn how to get her temper under control by herself — a skill that'll come in handy during school hours too.
Be consistent. Decide — when you're not angry yourself — what actions merit a time-out. If you use time-out too often, you'll dilute its effectiveness, so save it for the tougher problems — aggressive acts such as hitting and throwing toys, or open defiance. Then find a quiet moment to discuss with your child the time-out policy in your family, letting her know where you'll give time-outs, for what reasons, and for how long. Once you've outlined the rules, stick to them. Being wishy-washy, or offering lengthy explanations or third and fourth chances, will only invite protests. Your grade-schooler needs to know exactly what to expect, and she needs to know that she can't wheedle her way out of it. "You hit your brother, so you're going to have a seven-minute time-out right now," is all you need to say.
Follow up. When the time-out is over, address the transgression that put her there in the first place. If she tackled her brother when he declined to share a toy, for instance, have her tell you what she did wrong and apologize to her sibling. Also ask how she'll handle the situation next time. Don't yell at her, don't lecture her, and don't give her a big hug now that it's over. She may be remorseful (and you may even feel a little guilty for banishing her), but rewarding her with positive reinforcement at the end of the time-out may actually encourage future misbehavior.
Give your child plenty of time-in, too. Just as time-outs discourage bad behavior, "time-ins" reinforce good behavior. If you find yourself constantly imposing time-outs on your child for getting into scrapes with her little sister, for instance, make every effort to "catch" your grade-schooler getting along with her too. Then tell her, "What a great job you're doing playing with Zoe. I love it when you're kind to her!" The more effort you put into time-in, the less you may need to enforce time-out.
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