Ask An Expert / Behavior Problems

My 5-year-old doesn’t listen to me and is disrespectful. Time-outs don’t work. What should I do?

En Español

You may need to brush up on your time-out techniques

Vasco Lopes, PsyD

I have a 5-year-old boy and 6-month-old son. The 5-year-old loves his brother, but he is very sensitive and does not listen to what I tell him to do. I put him in time-out and it doesn't seem to work. When I ask him "Why did you do that?" he doesn't answer me and starts to cry. He's also very disrespectful to me. What should I do?

It sounds like your son’s tantrums occur when he is required to follow your directions — a very common trigger to disrespectful behavior and tantrums for young children. Although it can be very frustrating when children become oppositional to rules and throw tantrums when given commands, there are certain things that even the best-intentioned parent does that can make this problem even worse.

Many parents I see have this problem — children who become oppositional or upset when required to do something they don’t want to do or stop something they like doing. Unfortunately, many of these parents have gotten in a pattern where they are paying attention to their child’s misbehavior and ignoring appropriate compliant behavior. One of the first things that I like to do with parents is to reverse this pattern of attention: You want to pay attention to compliant behavior and consistently ignore disrespectful, tantrum behaviors. In this manner, the child learns that compliant behavior will result in rewarding positive attention, and that oppositional behavior will neither get him attention nor help him get his way.

By asking questions, such as “Why do you do that?” during or after a tantrum, it inherently gives attention to the child’s misbehavior, making it more likely to continue in the future. It can also escalate the intensity of the tantrum in the moment. Since many kids who throw temper tantrums get very defensive when blamed for things, asking for a rationale for their negative behavior can escalate their tantrum even further. And a child who is very emotional can’t think rationally about his behavior.

Parents who come see me for parent training often tell me that they have tried timeouts and they do not work with their child. This is often because of common mistakes in using the procedure that makes it ineffective. First, a time out must have a negative consequence. If the child is able to have fun in time out (watch TV, play with a toy, read a book), then it is no longer a time-out — it is fun time! Second, children should be ignored throughout the duration of the time-out. Parents who talk to, look at, or gesture to the child during time out are giving the child reinforcing attention. Third, the child’s behavior must be appropriate during the time-out. Parents who mistakenly let their child out of time out even though they are screaming and yelling are not teaching their child that they must act appropriately to get out of time-out. Moreover, if the child leaves time-out before his time is up, he must go to a backup time-out area. Many parents whose children prematurely run out of time-out often give up and assume that time out isn’t working. Lastly, when the child’s time out period has ended, he must comply with the original command that landed him in time-out to begin with. Many parents, when their child has completed time out, let him pursue another activity instead of complying with the original command (start your homework), making the time-out a reinforcing avoidance strategy for the child instead of a negative consequence.

If you use time-out and consistently consider the above steps, along with praising positive compliance behaviors and ignoring minor misbehavior, you should get your child’s compliance to increase and his disrespectfulness and tantrums to decrease. If you still experience difficulty after using these steps consistently, you might want to consult with a psychologist experienced in parent training, especially parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT), which would help you master these parenting skills.