Child Discipline: How To Give "Time Out" to a Toddler

When your baby becomes a toddler, it's very exciting. But with all his new skills comes the need to set firm and consistent limits; both for his safety, and for your sanity! Lots of you wonder how, and when, to give a Time Out to a toddler. And is it OK to do it, even if he doesn't "understand" the concept? Reader Kelly has this dilemma: Dr. Heather,

My 14-month-old son has developed a scratching habit. It started with him scratching me for a reaction. I would firmly say, "NO, scratching hurts mommy." This led to more scratching. He does it if he's angry, or just because. I tried Time-Out, but I'm not sure he's understanding the concept. We're trying Dr. Harvey Karp's "toddlerese" which doesn't seem to work with the scratching, because most of the time he seems to do it out of the blue, and I don't know what he's feeling in order to show I understand his needs. Any ideas on ways to prevent this?

Kelly From Maryland

Time Out for a Toddler

Dear Kelly,

A 14-month-old is just starting to get the idea that using his new-found skills in controlling his body can lead to some interesting results. Your baby was used to being the passive recipient of action all day; people picking him up, putting him down, giving (or taking away) food, toys, or arms of comfort.

Now that he can walk and better control his body, it's a whole new ballgame. HE gets to be in control! HE gets to experiment with ways of getting (and keeping) your attention. He's also not quite sure how to modulate the force of his touch, either. He's experimenting with what's OK; how hard (or soft) to touch others. So, your approach should be to model nice, gentle touching, and to provide consistent, firm limits when he's aggressive.

Focus on how to touch others nicely. Point out how well he touches others, when he's in the act. "I see you petting the kitty so gently. What a nice job!" Demonstrate with his peers. "Can you show your cousin how you touch nicely? I like how you patted her back so softly." Do lots of positive reinforcement of the behavior you want him to repeat.

Other times, he will need limits. When you say you're not sure he understands the concept of Time Out; I'm sure you're right. A 14-month-old certainly won't "understand" it, at least until he’s experienced it many, many times, consistently, for the same offenses. But Time Outs have a cumulative effect, and soon, he’ll get the message.

Try this three-part approach:

  1. Immediately (and briefly) explain the infraction, and the consequence. “No scratching. Time Out.” Use a firm, but low voice; you want to get his attention, but not let him think he’s got you really upset. (You don’t want to reward him if he’s just doing it to get your attention.)
  2. Find a convenient corner or other area that’s removed from the usual action. Sit with him, and have him face the corner. At 14 months, you’ll probably have to gently hold him there for the duration of the time out. At this age, I would suggest 30-60 seconds, depending on your child’s temperament. (Some get the message more quickly than others!) When he protests, simply repeat, in the same, low voice, “No scratching. Time Out.” Don’t get into explaining or yelling. He won’t understand it anyway. You just want him to realize that scratching immediately results in Time Out.
  3. And when Time Out is over; it’s OVER. Say, “Time Out’s all done.” And then move on; don’t lecture or rehash the event, or ask him to apologize. At this age, all you can hope for is that he’ll internalize some control over his aggression.

It’s also a good age to start showing him there’s a time and place for everything. Make sure he has ample opportunity to get physical; throwing, kicking, climbing, and yelling during playtime, every day. Toddlers need a solid, physical playtime of at least 45 minutes each day, as long as there are no health issues. Let him know that he is allowed to express his aggressive feelings, at the appropriate time and place. A toddler who is run into the ground at the park is far less likely to scratch, bite and yell at home! WEAR HIM OUT. Play chase, jump up and down, yell and holler, climb and roll. Then give him the opportunity to destroy things, when allowed; tearing paper, dumping items out of bins, and making (allowed) messes like finger painting are all good ways to positively channel a toddler’s aggression and energy. Then when he’s with you, he’s more likely to be calm and gentle.

As your little guy develops, soon he'll learn that he can avoid Time-Outs by paying attention to the behaviors you're reinforcing. "Catch" him behaving nicely, and give him a lot of praise when he does. That way, you'll be able to use Time Outs infrequently.

Hope that helps. And check out more on my strategies with other Annoying Toddler Behaviors!


Dr. Heather

The BabyShrink