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How to Get Good Behavior without Timeouts?

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Dr. Laura,

I desperately need to know what to do with my three year old to make him behave. Now it's a power struggle every time I put him on the naughty step. Can you give some examples of what else can I do?

-- Adrienne


Dear Adrienne,

Three year olds can be a handful. Unfortunately, timeouts often set up a pattern of power struggles with them. Luckily, there are better ways to coax good behavior out of even the most difficult three year olds. Discipline means "to guide." If it crosses the line from guidance to retaliation, that's punishment. And all punishment makes your child feel angry, which hardens his heart to you and makes him less likely to cooperate. A kid who thinks you're on his side, on the other hand, WANTS to behave, which is half the battle.

But are timeouts punishment? Yes, absolutely. They're no different than when you were made to stand in the corner. Timeouts are a symbolic abandonment and leave your kid alone with his unmanageable feelings just when he most needs you. They make him feel like a naughty person, which means he's more likely to act like a naughty person. They don't help him to regulate his feelings or his behavior. (You didn't seriously think he was sitting on the naughty step considering how to be a better kid, did you? Like any normal human, he's reviewing why he was right and plotting revenge.)

Ok, no punishment. But how can you manage your child's behavior without punishment?

1.Give him words. What's under his bad behavior? Bad feelings! Kids act out their feelings because they don't know what else to do with them. Build emotional intelligence by helping him name -- and begin to control -- that force sweeping through him:

  • "You are so mad you want to bite!"
  • "You are crying, you really want to play longer."
  • "You are telling Mommy to shut up because you are so mad!"
  • "You are telling me you didn't eat the cookie but I see you have chocolate on your mouth; I think you are scared to tell me the truth."

2. Connect before you correct, and stay connected, even while you guide, to awaken your child's desire to be his best self. Remember that children misbehave when they feel bad about themselves and disconnected from us.

  • Stoop down to her level and look her in the eye: "You are mad but no biting!"
  • Pick her up: "You wish you could play longer but it's time for bed."
  • Make loving eye contact: "You are so upset right now."
  • Put your hand on her shoulder: "You're scared to tell me about the cookie."

3. Set limits -- but set them with empathy. Of course you need to enforce your rules. But you can also acknowledge her perspective. When kids feel understood, they're more able to accept our limits.

  • "You're very very mad and hurt, but we don't bite. Let's use your words to tell your brother how you feel."
  • "You wish you could play longer, but it's bedtime. I know that makes you sad."
  • "You don't want Mommy to say No, but the answer is No. We don't say 'Shut Up' to each other, but it's ok to be sad and mad."
  • "You are scared, but we always tell the truth to each other."

4. Give him what he wants through wish fulfillment. He thinks he needs to bite his brother or keep playing, but what he really needs is someone who understands and loves him, no matter what. Someone who cares about his happiness.

  • "Sometimes you wish your brother would just go away, even though other times you love to play with him."
  • "I bet when you get big you'll never stop playing, you'll play all night long, right?"
  • "I bet you wish you had a mom who never said No, who always said Yes, Yes, Yes!"
  • "I know you wish you didn't eat the cookie."

5. Help him calm down. Do a "Time-In" where you stay with your child and let him have his meltdown in your attentive presence. Your goal is to provide a calm "holding environment" for your child's storm. Expressing emotions with a safe, attentive, accepting adult is what helps kids discharge and learn to self-soothe so they can regulate their own emotions eventually.

6. Don't try to reason during the emotional storm. When we're hijacked by adrenaline and other fight or flight hormones, we can't learn. Afterwards, he'll feel so much better, and so much closer to you, that he'll be open to your guidance about why we don't say "Shut Up" (Because it hurts feelings) or lie (Because it cuts the invisible cords that connect our hearts to each other.)

7. Resist the urge to punish. You don't need to punish your child to teach a lesson. If you do, I guarantee you he will be more likely to lie, misbehave and act disrespectfully in the future. He already knows what behavior you want. Now he just needs your help to manage his emotions so he feels better -- and can act better.

I know that this may seem foreign to you if you're been relying on Timeouts, but you will see a huge improvement in your little one's behavior once you renounce punishment. You can enforce high standards, if you stay connected and set limits empathically, because your child will WANT to behave. Still wondering how to put all this into practice? There's a whole section on this website on Positive Discipline.

And for more on timeouts, here's the answer to a letter Why Timeouts are a Bad Idea, and an article What's Wrong with Timeouts and Consequences.

I wish you luck in connecting with your little hellion. Enjoy him!

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of three best-selling books

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