Dear Dr. Josh,
Help!!!! My child is 3 ½ years old and has started being incredibly defiant at home.. My husband and I have tried almost everything we can think of to change this behavior, but nothing seems to be working. We have tried positive reinforcement, even offering special rewards. When he acts up we put him in his room for timeout for 10 minutes. Then if he does it again we go to 15 and 20 minutes. He screams and yells and tears up his room until we get him out. It seems like he spends the majority of his time in his room being punished. What can we do?
We’ve all heard the term “time-out”- but very often parents with the best intentions don’t know the proper techniques for giving a time out. The biggest mistake people make is a misunderstanding of what a timeout actually is- many parents use it as a way for the child to “pay” for their mistake—the worse the mistake the more or longer they pay in timeout.. So the first mistake the viewer is making is dragging out the amount of time.
Timeout—actually refers to time out from reinforcement. The idea is that when a behavior happens that we want to not happen we immediately remove the child from any reinforcing or rewarding environment. A timeout is nothing more than a brief break from attention in any form—demands, threats, explanations, rewards, hugs everything.
Here are some simple tips from psychologist Alan Kazdin, who is the author of the book “The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child”.
Timeouts should be:
• Brief- because the timeout's positive effect on behavior is almost all concentrated in its first minute or two. Extra time has no value in terms of changing behavior. If you feel that you must go beyond one or two minutes, treat 10 minutes as the extreme upper limit.
• Immediate, following as closely as possible upon the behavior that made it necessary. If you can, do it on the spot, not when you get home from the store or playground. Delayed timeouts are ineffective.
• In isolation from others, with the child in a separate room or sitting alone in a chair off to one side. Complete isolation is not needed if you feel it would be good to keep an eye on the child.
• Done calmly without repeated warnings. They can not be used in anger or as an act of vengeance. Make clear to the child which behaviors lead to timeout, and then be consistent about declaring one when such behavior occurs. One warning is plenty. Bottom line—if it isn’t working – you are doing something wrong.
What do you do if child resists
Instead of using force, give an extra minute penalty. You can do this twice: up the timeout from two minutes to three, then to four. Then, if that doesn't work, take away a privilege—something significant but brief, like no TV today. (It helps to decide on this penalty in advance rather than winging it on the spot when everybody's excited and upset. You can also use it if the child comes out of timeout too early; one warning, if you wish, and then invoke the penalty.) Then pivot and walk away.
Don't give in if she then says, "Ok, ok, ok, I’ll do it," because that reinforces an unwanted sequence. Let the consequence do the work, and resist the temptation to add a little zinger like, "you never listen, and now you're paying the price!" saying such things may release steam, causing your child-induced aneurysms not to burst, but it will increase the side effects of punishment.
The final idea is what we call differential reinforcement of alternative behavior—basically if you want something like hitting to stop then you have to give the child an alternative like keeping their hands to themselves and then reward them whenever they do that. If you don’t reward the behavior you want to occur more frequently then all you will do is spend your time curbing the behavior you want to stop.
A familiar term but a few “tricks of the trade” thanks to Dr. Kazdin.