Discipline and the Defiant Child

Is it time to give time out a time out?

Everybody wants a silver bullet— a one-size-fits-all cure for the common anything. For years, the silver bullet in parenting was a good old-fashioned spanking, the mere threat of which was supposed to make children stop their misbehavior and obediently heed directions. As parents began to realize that spankings and other forms of autocratic discipline generally worsened power struggles between parents and children, parents looked for less bombastic methods of influence. Enter the panacea of time outs.

Though parents have been employing the command, “Go to your room,” for almost as long as they’ve been doling out spankings, with time outs, enlightened parents felt they had stumbled on a new and gentler silver bullet. In fact, one popular book devoted to the sole use of time outs for discipline likens a time out to “magic” in its effectiveness.

But, the problem with spankings, time outs and other silver bullet solutions is that children— especially spirited children prone to power struggles and other challenging behaviors— soon build an immunity. A modern flu virus could take lessons from a power-seeking 5 year old who wants what he wants when he wants it. “Go ahead and put me on time out,” he yells at the beleaguered parent. “I don’t care!”

The more we force such as child into taking a time out, the more he digs in his heels in protest of our authority. At times, the push becomes literal as a frustrated parent drags a defiant, thrashing and screaming child off to time out. The kicker is when a parent has to stand in the hallway holding a bedroom door shut while an unrepentant child engages in a tug-of-war from the other side. Far from the vision of quiet reflection that the term “time out” evokes for hopeful parents, the scene degenerates into a cartoon strip mocking parental authority!

What’s a parent to do? Realize that effectively handling power struggles with spirited children requires more strategy than the use of any single silver bullet. The following six tips give a glimpse of where to start in getting your children to obey sans time outs.

1. Neither fight nor give in.

When you fight with a power-driven child by trying to put him in a time out or by using any other discipline skill that proclaims your authority over him, you set yourself up as the enemy to be resisted. This makes such children want to fight you even harder. And because spirited children are often blessed with the gift of persistence, you may be in for a long afternoon. On the other hand, when you submit to a child’s unreasonable demands or ignore his misbehavior, you send the message that he can do whatever he likes. This also fuels his over-the-top desire for power. After all, what works gets repeated.

2. Give choices, not orders.

Contrary to popular belief, kids do not necessarily want what you don’t want them to have. Often they just want the power to decide for themselves. Many a power struggle has been avoided or ended simply by giving a child a choice instead of an order. Rather than demanding your child put on his blue shirt, giving him a choice between wearing the blue or the red shirt can give him just enough power to feel in control of the situation. The key is to give choices that you— the parent and leader of the family— can live with. This concept of freedom within limits is the cornerstone of effective parenting— and of life in our democratic society.

3. Motivate your child with when-then scenarios.

When your child refuses or is likely to refuse to do what you’ve asked of him, find something that he likes doing on a regular basis and connect the two activities. For example: “When you’ve had your bath, then I’ll read you that story you love.” You can avoid turning this into a bribe or reward, which is a slippery slope best left alone.

4. Choose a consequence that fits the misbehavior.

Successful people learn that what happens in life usually results from choices they make. Parents can teach this concept of responsibility by using discipline logically connecting a child’s choice to misbehave with a consequence that follows. With that in mind, a time out is a good consequence for anti-social behavior, such as hitting: “Either play without hitting or play in your room by yourself.” Such a consequence makes sense— even for kids who haven’t learned about prisons and solitary confinement. However, most misbehaviors require consequences other than a time out if they are to be logically connected. Wise parents develop a repertoire of consequences to use when necessary. For example: “If you break the window, you help pay for it.”

5. Stay firm and friendly.

The easiest thing for a parent to do when confronted with a resistant child is to get angry. As one mother put it, “I didn’t even know that I could get angry until I had Alex!” However, the moment you get angry, you lose that round in the power struggle. Maintain a firm tone of voice that says “I’m in charge here,” yet one that also says, “I’m not your enemy; I’m your friend.” Look for a solution with your child to make both of you happy, as well as one that lies within the limits of the situation.

6. Strengthen the relationship.

When power struggles persist between a parent and child, the overall relationship deteriorates. This makes it increasingly hard to discipline your child when necessary. To counteract this negative cycle, it is imperative that you spend time building the relationship by doing affirming activities like playing together, teaching your child skills, reading together, encouraging your child, helping him solve problems, showing concern for his feelings, treating him respectfully and other relationship-building activities.

There is much more I could share with you about discipline, but I am getting tired and need a time out. Actually, that’s my seventh tip for you— make sure that you take care of the caregiver. Exercise, eat well, get enough sleep and take a break from time to time.

And when you feel like you are about to lose it with your child, take your sail out of his wind. In other words, instead of trying to deflate him by showing what a tough-love parent you are, excuse yourself and take a break— as long as your child is old enough to be left alone. The bathroom works fine— it’s the one place in the house where privacy is expected. Then once you calm down, you’ll be better able to think of a strategy for engaging your child without giving in or fighting.

I guess a time out is a good option after all— for parents.