We have been looking at 5 different types of misbehavior: disobedience, attention-getting behaviors, breaking rules and routines, deliberately hurting others, and wrong behavior rooted in real problems. So far we have covered disobedience and attention-getting, and breaking rules and routines. Today we tackle the question of what to do with a child who is acting out aggressively or deliberately hurting others.
The primary tool for teaching a child who is hurting others or acting out aggressively is the “time out.” When carried out consistently and properly, this can be a very effective means of helping a child learn appropriate behavior. But it can fail to accomplish this goal if it is not applied quickly, consistently and completely. Here are some guidelines for applying the time out:
1. Act immediately. We sabotage ourselves when we do not take action the first time we see the behavior. “If you hit your brother with that toy again, you are going into time out.” Giving this warning teaches the child that consequences come after a second offense. Giving the time our right away teaches the seriousness of the harmful behavior. This also keeps the situation from escalating to the point where the parent loses his temper. Remember, a parent losing his temper is the number one way to lose effectiveness. How can a child learn self control if we can’t?
2. The length of the time out should, under normal circumstances, be 1 minute for every year old of the child. A small kitchen timer or microwave timer can be used to track the time. Don’t just use the clock, this puts the burden of watching the time on you. (Besides, you need lots of kitchen timers around the house to track turns on the computer, reading time, turns on the video game, TV time, etc.)
3. There should be nothing interesting to do in a time out. Going to his room where there are many toys and games is not really a time out. Sitting on the bottom step, in a chair or in a corner, out of view of the TV, is more appropriate. A crib or travel yard can be used for small children.
4. Say as little as possible before, during and after the time out. Little Joey hits his brother with a plastic shovel. Mom comes up and in a calm but firm voice says, “We don’t hit other people.” Picks Joey up and deposits him in the play pen in his room and sets the timer. Also notice the statement is phrased as a general truth, “we don’t hit,” rather than “I’m sick and tired of you hitting your brother!” This second statement is about “the child’s hitting” making “me sick and tired,” which puts the tension between me and the child, rather than where it belongs: between the child’s behavior and the universal truth that hitting others is not acceptable. Absolutely nothing is spoken during the time out. Once the time out is over, for very young children (under 4) a one sentence reminder of the offence is all that should be spoken, “We don’t hit other people.” For older children (4 and up), nothing at all should be said. The child should be able to start over. At this point look for neutral and positive behavior to affirm so he knows that you are on his side.
5. If the child resists or does not stay in the chair, use the “kinetic assist.” Remember, this is using your body or movement to affect the body or movement of the child (this is not hurting or punishing, it is assisting). If the child does not stay seated or tries to run, place your hands on his shoulders and hold him to the chair and explain, “You must sit quietly for a 5 minute time out. I will start the timer when you sit quietly.” You continue to hold him until he stops struggling, then calmly, without a word, set the time and walk away. You may have to repeat this for an hour or all evening long, but showing the child that the limits are firm and secure, no matter how hard they are tested, will pay off in the long run. Keep your cool, the struggle is not between you and him, but between his self control and the temptation to fight the limits.
6. Finally, if the child’s emotional state becomes escalated, you may have to physically restrain him to help him get control of himself. To do this, come behind the child, his back against your front, put his arms across his chest (holding his left hand with your right and his right with your left), sit down and wrap each of your legs around each of his and say to him, “I am not going to hurt you, but I am going to hold you until you can calm down.” When he relaxes, loosen your grip, if he struggles, tighten your grip. It may take an hour or more before he is ready to sit quietly for his time out, but that is still the goal.
If all of the above are being followed, and the aggressive behavior is increasing rather than decreasing, then it is time to look for the underlying causes and get outside help from mature, trusted friends and perhaps a good Christian counselor.