Your Child’s Behavior: Turning Negatives into Positives

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Your toddler snatched a toy out of his baby sister’s hands—again. A good old fashion time-out is sure to cure the habit, right?  Not necessarily.

“Time-outs alone won’t work unless positive behavior is also recognized,” says Dr. Alan Kazdin, author of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child: With No Pills, No Therapy, No Contest of Wills and director of the Yale Parenting Center at Yale University.

That’s because effective discipline isn’t about getting rid of behavior. Instead, it’s about reinforcing the positive behavior that you want instilled in your child like voicing to your child what you appreciate about her actions.

During time-outs, kids are only taught what not to do instead of what they should be doing to behave appropriately. Case in point: When your toddler steals his little sister’s toy and you punish him by putting him in time-out, he’ll stop taking the toy for the moment.

But in the long run, Kazdin says he’ll keep going back to taking his sister’s things. What will change his behavior? Praising your son when he plays nicely with his sister. “Do that once a day, three times week, you’ll change the fighting that goes on between them,” Kazdin says.

And when positive behavior doesn’t work? In serious cases—like hitting, breaking things, swearing, or verbal aggression—a time-out is in order. Still, there’s a right way to do it, says Kazdin.

Here’s his advice for making timeouts effective.

  • Give a warning You don’t need to pull the time-out card the first time your child misbehaves. But do let him know what’s coming if he acts out again.
  • Make it immediate Time-outs ought to be administered directly after bad behavior. By waiting too long—or worse, making empty threats—the punishment loses its effectiveness.
  • Give an explanation Be calm when you tell your child she’s going in time out, and let her know why she’s being punished and how long the punishment will last.
  • Don’t use force Pulling or arm-grabbing will just make your child resist. If she won’t go to time out, have a backup consequence ready, like no bedtime story.
  • Be time-sensitive For a 3-year-old, time-outs only need to last about 30 seconds.
  • Set expectations Let your child know that he has to be calm during his punishment.

That way, you’re utilizing time-outs to control negative behavior—but also working to replace the behavior with something better.

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