4 Year Old Not Sitting in Time Out

Updated on January 21, 2011
A.K. asks from Minneapolis, MN
16 answers

My 4 year old has recently begun to run the other direction when I try to put her in time out for something she has done. She will run and try to get me to chase her, and will stand on the other side of the room with her arms crossed and give me a sassy look. She has been doing increasingly in the last month. I am 36 weeks pregnant, so I can't continue to repeatedly carry her to time out and set her down until she finally stays there (like 'Nanny Jo' suggests). This is so frustrating and usually ends up with me yelling YOU ARE IN TIME OUT and her crying because I yelled at her. And then me feeling horribly guilty for the rest of the day/night for losing my temper and yelling. I hate this and I need some advice!

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answers from Pittsburgh on

Some people call what Peg M is doing 'time in's' . We have never done time outs. And since you can no longer do them and they are not working for you I think you need to try something else. Reconnecting with the child and then addressing whatever the initial problem was, puts you both on the same team. It takes the situation away from a battle of wills which you may eventually lose anyway.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Houston on

Oh, the sassy run... yes it's tiring, especially when you are big and pregnant!!!

Perhaps another method of discipline can work for her... maybe even spending quiet time in her room.

some helpful tips here from child expert Dr. Sears:

here is specific advice for time-outs:

1 mom found this helpful

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answers from Portland on

If you want a more peaceful and effective approach to child rearing than time outs, I hope you'll read to the end. Though they are often better than some harsher alternatives, time-outs just don't work for some kids, Results vary based partly on the style of time-out employed, and partly on the child's personality. The ideal is not to punish, but to give the child a chance to reset his emotions if he's upset and acting out, or to consider why certain behavior isn't acceptable.

In my experience, and that of several young families I've watched over the years, there's nothing to be gained, and a great deal to lose, by "punitive" time outs. Especially those that turn into extended struggles (or, in your case, the child acting like it's a joke Mommy just doesn't get), with the child repeatedly escaping and the parent repeatedly dragging the child back and starting the clock again. This becomes terribly hard on both the child and the parent, and since the idea is to help the child understand self-control and find calming alternatives to his behavior, what's the point? Both parties end up furious, upset, and often crying – about the punishment. The original behavior has been completely lost in the struggle.

Once it degenerates into a battle of wills, the parent thinks she MUST win, and the only way to accomplish that is emotional or physical force. A child who's just beginning to understand herself as a separate being with separate desires and motives is understandably confused and frustrated by a setup that seems to set her parents against a most basic needs.

Two common outcomes, which I have personally experienced in my birth familly:

1. It can gradually convince the child that she will be able to win when she gets big enough or devious enough, and the child works toward or sullenly awaits that end result, with either outwardly expressed disdain and rage or inwardly guarded anger. (This was a younger sister of mine, who has had a seriously dysfunctional life.)

2. It can establish an understanding that parents don't care about her feelings and needs, which can result in a sad and uncommunicative child who believes she's not worthy of respect and care. (This was me and another sister, who have had years of work to overcome painful self-esteem issues.)

Those are outcomes of time-outs (and other forms of punishment) gone wrong. I'd like to mention that while we were kids, my sisters and I were considered "model" children by many admiring onlookers, and my mother did seem to be in complete control. But very painful stuff was going on underneath the glossy surface.

The best time-out is a "safe" time for the child in which she is given a supportive opportunity to deal with frustration, disappointment, anger, or inappropriate behavior.

If you want to try the non-punitive time-out, a quiet spot near the parent, on the couch or a chair near where mommy's working in the kitchen, are excellent locations. (In public, you may need to carry the child to the car, or a bench, or sit on a patch of grass.) Quiet conversation may be desirable and completely appropriate. Sending a child to her room may work, if it's not a 'punishment' – even if she forgets while she's there and starts playing, that's fine if the point was to get into a better mood. But some kids will find being sent away from the parent to be an unbearable rejection, and the suffering they experience may be totally out of proportion to the misbehavior.

After the time-out, usually about one minute per year of the child's life, you can help her reflect on a more desirable behavior than the one that stopped her play. Help her understand what her alternatives might be; using words instead of hitting or screaming; asking for help if she's frustrated; finding something else to do if she's asking for something she can't have (and parents really would do well to provide those alternatives before the meltdown); etc.

Many parents require the child to apologize after a misdemeanor. I personally think this is teaching the child to tell a convenient lie so she can get back to her play. It is fine, however, to model, early and often, the civilized art of apology. Just as with any other courtesy, children learn best by seeing, hearing, and receiving those kindnesses. And for the past year, since my grandson turned 4, he's usually offered an apology without being asked for one (sometimes an hour or more after the misdemeanor).

So, what if your child doesn't seem to be one who benefits from time-outs? There are two related approaches that are often referred to as empathetic parenting or emotion coaching, that I find to be much more effective, sane, compassionate, encouraging and positive. For younger children, I'm impressed by the approach taught by John Gottman in Raising your Emotionally Intelligent Child (http://www.education.com/reference/article/important-pare...) or as used by Dr. Harvey Karp in The Happiest Toddler on the Block. You can find a whole set of videos and interviews on this in youtube if you'd like to see this alternative in action, and you can google the terms to find a whole batch of websites that explain the basics and the benefits.

For more verbal kids, I can't recommend strongly enough the wonderful book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk, in a clear, easy-to-read cartoon format. Though it's non-punitive (in the forceful sense), this is not parent-as-pushover stuff. I've watched pretty amazing results when parents have tried these techniques with kids whom they considered willful, stubborn, spoiled, or otherwise hopeless.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Honolulu on

Then... YOU walk away from her. ie: Mommy time-out... meaning.. she does not get Mommy... to interact with her.
TELL her that.
I have done that with my kids.. and it works.

Do not.... interact with her when she is like that.
Sit down, say Mommy has to take care of herself... and SIT down, open a magazine and READ it. Don't look at her.
Just verbalize... MOMMY... is taking a time-out.... and will not play with you... until you... behave. You know better.

Explain... that you have to take care of yourself... AND she needs to help. My daughter was about that age, when I was preggers with my son.
I EXPLAINED to my daughter.... in a comforting way... that we are a "TEAM" and that... means... that we BOTH... have to take care.... if not... Mommy's tummy... can get sore.

You AND your Husband... has to, emphasize this with her....

She is.... dealing with your being pregnant too... so where does she all fit in? Prep her now, for baby... before baby comes home. Assure her... of her place... and that you love her....

4 years old, is a hard age.
My son is now 4. Boy... what a handful sometimes. But he knows "MY" limits....

all the best,

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Portland on

Hello Mama-

In my 17 years working with kids, I've never found they typical time-out to work. You spend 10 minutes forcing your child in a 4 minute time-out! How annoying. On top of that, the behavior does not change, and that is your real goal.

To the parents I coach, (I'm a parent coach) and in class I teach, Behavior Modificaiton without Punishment, I use a different type of time out, and I've found it works best!

I only use this for out of control moments, ie: Tantrums:

1) Tell the child "I see you're upset, but I cannot understand you when you're yelling" This provided information to them about what they are feeling and your limitations currently
2) Next say "I want to help you when you're calm. Please go _____ and calm down" Your child will either go else where or you repeat the message, and you walk away. "I want to help you when you're calm. I'll be in the kitchen when you're ready to talk"
3) Repeat the same message until your child is calm. Don't get mad or yell, just calmly repeat that message.
4) Once your child is calm, talk about the issue and better ways to solve it.

Now I use this, because it teaches kids to learn their anger cues, to walk away when they fell angry and that you will only repsond to them when you are calm.

I have actually had a 3 year old walk up to me and say, "I need a moment, this is just too much, I'll be back." and go calm before they threw a tantrum.

Then key is YOU being consistent and stating the same message. The great thing, this works well for whining too!

The key to changing behavior is knowing that your child will stop doing what you dislike IF that behavior stops working for them. They use "naughty" behavior, because it is successful for them. Once it's not, they will change approaches. This is when you show your child the approach you want them to use, by giving them what they want, when they behave how you want.

Good Luck!

R. Magby

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answers from Topeka on

I absolutely agree with the advice that Peg M has given you!! Unfortunately I did NOT model that behavior with my children when they were little (My children are all grown...2 with children of their own) . I am amazed as I watch my daughters raise their sons with the outlook and practices that Peg is telling you about and I wish that I had a magic button I could push and reverse time to 1975 when my first child was born...and start all over again with the wisdom, patience and understanding that my daughters are displaying as they raise their sons!! I see them using the moments after a meltdown by their sons, or a time of rebellion, to acknowledge their childrens feelings (Yes, I understand that you really are angry because you want to play outside right now but we need to get in the car and go to the store....how about we play outside AFTER we do our shopping?")and to help their child deal safely with their out of control feelings.
Do we really REALLY think that our children spend the time that we require them to be in time out considering the "error of their ways"? No...they are simply feeling distanced from the one source of comfort and strength that they really need during this time ( their parents) and they are getting more angry and upst by the moment.
I Had never thought of what Peg said about forcing them to apologize is teaching them to tell a "convenient lie" to get out of trouble...but that is SO true!!! Right on Peg!!!
So if I were you I would think about coming up with a different way of dealing with your daughters meltdowns and infractions. It will make life so much easier for you in a few weeks when you have two little ones to care for!!!

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

I'd guess that she's aware that you are not physically able right now to, as you put it "carry her to time out and set her down." She can see that it's too hard for you so she knows she can pop up and outlast you right now. Not much you can do about that at this time!

Unfortunately, Jo is right -- repeated and very calm returns to the time out spot are the only way to do it. I've seen her spend an hour or more taking a kid back again and again to the time out spot until the child stays for the alloted time and gives the apology she always requires (and rightly so). Only repeated returns worked with my daughter and she learned that they meant business.

A couple of things to consider:

Are you using time outs so much that they're losing their impact? Maybe with being tired and frustrated, it's possible you're overusing them for behaviors that could be better handled with simple redirection and distraction?

Are the time-outs lasting the right amount of time -- one minute for each year of her age, so four minutes maximum? If the time outs have gotten longer they may be too long to be effective.

Is she seeing all this as a game instead of as discipline? That "sassy look" she gives you may be her way of saying she's won this round.

And finally, she may be acting out because she senses the huge change that's coming. Sure, she's very young to make the connection between your pregnancy and the reality of a baby that will take al lyour attention -- but I'm not sure from the post if you have other kids and if she has any experience of losing mom's attention when a baby comes.

Or if there's been a lot of talk about the baby, preparation of the baby's crib and room, presents arriving for baby, etc., she's aware of all that and knows something is up and it's not about her.

So maybe some extra time focused just on her, making her feel special and reassured, would help with whatever behaviors are cropping up that cause you to use time outs. Of course, the special you-and-her times shouldn't come when she has just misbehaved -- that will confuse her into wondering why mom sometimes gives a time out and now is being so nice! When she is calm and happy, give her that extra attention.

Congratulations on the baby and take care!

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Kalamazoo on

I would walk right past her, into her room and take one of her favorite toys/things and keep it for the entire day.

"Look, you're not in charge, I am. And I don't appreciate your little sassy/snotty looks. Since you wouldn't accept your 4min time out punishment for what you did, I am keeping this toy for the rest of the day. And if you continue to disrespect me by not listening and giving me dirty looks, then I will continue to remove your things PERMENETLY if we need to. Got it?"

You can learn all the psyco bable you want, but the fact is, she is not listening to you and not respecting you. So do you want her to listen and respect or do you want her to sit in a quiet place and reflect on how she just got away with not listening to mommy..........

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answers from Spokane on

She wants you to chase her down, to give her that attention - so don't. I would just ignore her for the usual duration of her time outs and then explain why you ignored her when you're explaining the timeout/getting the apology. Make sure you're giving her lots of extra attention, positive attention, and hopefully that will curb the negative attention seeking behaviours.

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answers from San Francisco on

Good advice Rebecca and Lesley.

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answers from Chicago on

She is 4. Threaten to take away things she likes (a sort of grounding) for a day or two if she doesn't sit in timeouts. Then follow-through. She is testing you because she can. We take away my daughter's favorite things for very bad behavior (like hitting at school) or refusing to sit in timeouts (I am 23 weeks prego with a 3.5 DD and 2 DS too)...she gets it and I am sure yours will too. I also stay in close proximity and push her right back down into the chair if she pops up if need be rather than chasing her all over the room (she too does that). Stay calm -- she enjoys getting the rise out of you because it is giving her attention she is craving. Best wishes for a great delivery and transition period!

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answers from Chicago on

We had the same problem with our son and my husband came up with a brilliant solution. The "time out bag." If our son didn't want to abide by the time out rules, we got out a large paper bag and would tell him that his favorite toy/truck/whatever he was playing with was going into the bag for a time out. For some reason, that immediately got him to stop the naughty behavior. If behavior kept going, we'd put toys in there and then place the bag somewhere he could see but didn't have access to (on top of dining table) and we'd tell him how long the time out would last. Good luck!



answers from Minneapolis on

If it's not working, then stop doing it. There are lots of other ways to handle discipline.

I've raised my family without timeouts, takeways, groundings or scoldings. We have strong boundaries. Basically I stand firm that what needs to happen does. If it's done wrong, no timeout, but a do-over. Now it's DONE RIGHT.

Peg is spot-on. How to Talk so Kids Will Listen is really good. It's easy to read. And even if you can't imagine something "working", try it anyway. There was more than one time I had to pick my jaw up off of the floor because I was so amazed that it worked. It has stopped countless battles.

The best parenting you can do is to teach how to do something the right way. Not by punishing when it's the wrong way, but by showing how to do it the right way so the habits are formed - the right way.



answers from Minneapolis on

I agree with SH (Susan's) advice and Leigh R's, also. When something is not working, we need to try a different approach.

I've never put my daughter in a "timeout". Her father tried it 2 or 3 times, ever. For some kids, it might work. For us, it didn't.



answers from Charlotte on



answers from Rochester on

I'm only 33 weeks, but my 4 year old is about 47 pounds of muscle, so when he is acting like this I take the "pity mommy" approach and just let him know that mommy is very uncomfortable and his baby brother is taking up a lot of space so I really need him to cooperate. That seems to work with him more often than not. He will usually sit in a time out if needed, but I usually phrase it more as him sitting in an armchair until he calms down and can talk, or so I can see him while I'm doing something (instead of him getting into trouble out of sight). For me, my 2 1/2 year old is a lot more exhausting right now. Hang in there... I agree that a break in her room might help as well. I am trying to make sure that my kids have really done something naughty (and believe me, they do) rather than I am out of patience because I'm pregnant and exhausted.

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