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Q&A

When Time-Out Doesn't Work

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Question

I now have a child who is a real challenge. "When he's good, he's very, very good - and when he's bad, he's a little monster!" In your time out articles, you do not explain what to do when your child will NOT stay in his time-out place. My child sasses me back, argues, won't do what he's told, won't stay in a time-out place. And, to make everything way worse, he is an incredible liar! I am really losing my patience because all my other kids were great - even my autistic child - but this kid is driving me to tears and depression. He knows that he is supposed to do what he's told - but 20 times a day, he doesn't do what he's told. If it was occasional, it would be different, but it's all the time. I don't think I mentioned that he is 6 years old, in grade 1. What's the answer? If he doesn't start complying, he's going to start getting spankings. Can you help me figure out a better way? Yes, I do love him dearly despite himself. Thanks so much. Btw, I'm a single parent, or I'd pass the problem on. lol

Answer

I'm glad that you wrote now, when he's just six, rather than waiting until he's older to tackle this problem. The problem with time-out, along with his serious noncompliance and lying, could be the seeds of an oppositional defiant disorder and now is the time to take action. I can see why you are losing patience; but take heart, you can change this behavior.

Time-out is one tool in your arsenal of strategies for managing noncompliant behavior. Because it's not effective with your defiant child, let's step back and look at the entire behavior management plan. (Tip - you can follow these steps in more detail in the About Family Change newsletter.)

  1. Start with relationship. If you have been frustrated with your child, your relationship has likely taken a negative turn. For the next few weeks, spend at least 5 minutes alone with him every day talking about things that he enjoys. At least once a week, spend 15 minutes with him doing something fun together. Don't put any pressure on this time together; simply listen and laugh and enjoy each other. Avoid communication roadblocks such as advising, directing, praising, or probing. Give him one sincere compliment during this time each day.
  2. Attend to the positive. A negative cycle develops when most of a parent's attention is directed toward misbehavior. Changing the balance of attention from negative to positive behaviors breaks the cycle of misbehavior by removing its reinforcement. In Transforming the Difficult Child, Howard Glasser suggests that you respond intensely to good behavior and mildly to bad behavior.

  3. Assess your child's behavior to identify both positive and problem behaviors. Particularly notice the times when the problem behavior DOES NOT occur. This will give you important clues to his individual triggers and the environmental and relationship triggers of good and bad behavior.

    Additional Help with Child Behavior Assessment

  4. Decide on behavior change goals that you want to target in a short-term plan to improve his behavior. You want to identify and target 1) one positive behavior to increase in frequency; 2) one problem behavior to decrease in frequency; and 3) one positive environmental change to make. Let's focus on his defiance of your requests, specifically sassing you, arguing, not complying, leaving time out, and lying.

    Choose one situation that normally elicits his positive compliance to replicate, increasing the frequency of positive compliance. For the problem behavior, let's choose 'noncompliance with a request' to decrease in frequency. As an example of an environmental goal, let's choose 'giving a request that is likely to evoke his noncompliance during times when I am tired or upset' to focus on during this short-term intervention.

  5. There are two points where you want to concentrate your intervention to change his behavior here - when you make a request to him and when he does not comply with your request.

    Use these steps to make a request. (See How to Give Effective Instructions to Your Child.)

    Before giving the child instructions:

    1. Decide what you want your child to do and when you want it done.
    2. Decide what consequence you will give if the child does not comply.
    3. Decide whether you will offer the child a choice.
    4. Determine where you will not compromise and where you will be more flexible.

    While giving the child instructions:

    1. Go to the child or call him to you.
    2. Make direct eye contact.
    3. State the need and what you want the child to do.
    4. Be very specific - give one step at a time to young children.
    5. Be aware of whether he begins to comply. Don't let it slide.
    6. Praise him when he complies.

    Because you know that he is likely to argue or sass you, use these strategies to reduce arguing.

    • State your expectations clearly, directly, and with authority. Maintain your self-control. Use a strong, firm, voice. If there is a hint of begging or pleading in your voice, you've lost your authority. Never end your statements with "okay?"
    • Use the "broken record" technique if the child starts to argue with a request. Repeat the command using the same voice you used originally. Don't get upset or start yelling. Don't start a confrontation, just keep repeating your expectation.

And, if he doesn't comply with your request...

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