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What to do when time-outs don't work (ages 6 to 8)

Why it happens

Every once in a while, when you're at your wits' end, you give your misbehaving grade-schooler a time-out — removing him from the action for a little solitary quiet time. The problem is, it never seems to work. Maybe he throws a tantrum, maybe he runs off in the other direction, or maybe he teasingly ignores your request to stay in his time-out spot. Should you abandon this discipline method, or stick with it? Stick with it, but do a little time-out troubleshooting first — perhaps your technique could simply use a tune-up.

What to do if:

Your child doesn't take time-outs seriously. Consistency is the key here: Don't call a time-out today but skip it tomorrow for the same behavior because you're in a better mood. And always follow through on a warning if your child doesn't heed you.

It's also important to give the time-out on the spot. Don't wait 30 minutes — or even five — until it's more convenient. If you're out in public, give the time-out right where you are. At the supermarket, you might have your grade-schooler sit on the floor in an out-of-the-way corner, or take him to the car if he's out of control. If you wait until you get home, you lose the opportunity to use time-out in the way it's intended. As soon as a time-out is disconnected from the immediate behavior, it becomes a threat, and then a punishment, and doesn't teach your child much. Remember that the point of time-out is not to make your kid quake in his Keds. It's simply to help him (and you) cool off and regain self-control.

Your grade-schooler thinks it's a big game.Remember, your attitude cues your child: If you're serious about time-out, he'll have to be, too. A cool, matter-of-fact demeanor works best. If your facial expression or tone of voice betrays exasperation, your child is sure to pick up on it. And, of course, it's vital to keep a straight face, even if he's shamelessly kissing up to you or showing impressive negotiating skills in an attempt to wheedle his way out of a time-out.

Your child won't stay put. When your grade-schooler refuses to go to his time-out place and stay there, he needs your help. Walk him to the chosen spot, and calmly instruct him to sit down. If he springs up, gently sit him back down again. Don't let these jack-in-the-box pop-ups become a game, though. If your youngster gets up a third time, simply sit down with him and hold him in your arms for the duration of the time-out. Do this consistently and without scolding. And it goes without saying that you should never jerk or force your child to his time-out spot.

If your grade-schooler simply won't stay in a time-out, there's little you can do to force the issue (short of pinning him to the floor — hardly a dignified position for either of you). But do let him know that there will be a consequence. This might mean missing his favorite TV show that day, or temporarily losing access to whatever it was that set him off in the first place.

Your child cries and yells through the whole time-out. It's upsetting to listen to, but a dramatic show of tears doesn't mean the time-out isn't working. Kids this age do get very angry sometimes, and your child doesn't have to sit as quiet as a mouse to learn something from this suspension of activity. Your mission: To ignore the hubbub. Trying to get your grade-schooler to quiet down only introduces a new power struggle and distracts from the point you're trying to make. Most kids calm down eventually. Even if yours doesn't, the key issue is whether he continues to misbehave after the time-out. If his actions and composure improve, you've made your point.

It helps to begin a time-out before your child reaches the point of no return. Intervene with diversionary tactics at the first signs of an impending meltdown. If those don't work, go promptly to time-out.

After a time-out, your child continues to misbehave. Give it time. When you try a new (or long-neglected) approach, your grade-schooler's behavior may get worse before it gets better. He's testing you to see if you'll really stand fast. If the mischief persists, swiftly give your youngster another time-out. Use the technique consistently, even if it seems to have no effect, and keep your explanations short and sweet: "You need to think some more about what I said."

Time-outs make your grade-schooler angrier, not calmer. Say your child grows restless and resentful (and thus more likely to misbehave) when he feels a time-out's gone on too long. In that case, the tactic isn't doing what it's supposed to — interrupt negative behavior. Keep in mind that while a minute per year is a handy guideline in setting time-outs, it isn't an absolute. (In fact, more than a few minutes may seem like an eternity to many grade-schoolers.) As soon as he's calmed down and switched gears, the time-out has served its purpose.

It's also important to make time-out just one of many strategies you employ when your child misbehaves. It's easy to fall into the habit of automatically calling time-out when you could try less drastic tactics. Rather than responding to ball throwing in the house with a time-out, for instance, offer your child a couple of acceptable alternatives: "If you want to play catch, let's go outside. If you want to stay inside, you need to find another game." If the ball throwing continues, proceed to a warning: "If you don't stop throwing the ball in the house, I'm going to put it away and give you some time to think about what I said." This sets up two possible resolutions before you move to time-out.

You can't seem to pull off time-outs away from home. This is a portable tactic. Even if you've designated a special spot for time-outs at home, you can still use the basic idea when you're out and about as long as you can find a relatively quiet spot to take your child. It could be a park bench, your car, or one of the less-traveled aisles at the grocery store. Use a calm, quiet voice to avoid embarrassing your grade-schooler and riling him further. Try to shrug off any embarrassment you might feel yourself, too — remember, you're just doing your job as a parent.

Time-out worked for a while but doesn't anymore. When time-out loses its potency, it's often because the tactic has been overused. Your grade-schooler no longer views it as an opportunity to calm down and think. Instead, he thinks of it as a repressive response to every act of assertion on his part. In this case, remind yourself that time-out is not a punishment, but a break in the action designed to help your child get a grip on his emotions and behavior. Keep in mind, too, that your grade-schooler still needs plenty of "time-in," — including encouragement, hugs, and kisses — whether or not he's doing something you like. Time-outs will regain their power when you save them for times when you're certain nothing else will work.

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