Children under 2 or special needs kids with cognitive and language skills under the 2 year-old level usually aren’t capable of understanding what a “time out” really is. It isn’t punishment, it is making a point that the behavior they just exhibited isn’t acceptable and that they need to take a break and cool off. Under 2, most toddlers just get up and run around, or cry because they see you upset. No lesson learned, nothing accomplished.
If you tell an 18 month-old that she “needs to think about what you’ve done and apologize”, then I have a bridge to sell you! She’s too young to mentally understand that smacking her brother when he took the toy she wanted could have hurt him badly. Anticipating injury is beyond her. Understanding that we don’t hit, and that she needs to calm down before going back and playing again is not beyond her. Seeing that if hitting will result in losing the toy, not retaining it, is also something she can grasp.
Natural consequences are just what they sound like: what will naturally happen if you take a certain action. You whined too long and now there is no time to go to the park. You threw your cookie and it broke into 20 pieces. You don’t get another. Simple results that you point out to make it clear that this kind of thing will happen. Natural consequences are still consequences, so be prepared for some sadness on the part of your toddler. That isn’t cruel, that is preventing him from developing the idea that he can do anything he feels like and not pay a price. It is possible to understand consequences between 1 and 2 years of age. It is not possible to always ignore the impulse to hit or throw. That is OK. Receiving a consequence is a good way to gradually learn impulse control. You don’t wait until they have full impulse control to impose gentle consequences. Brain development needs experiences to grow. Don’t deprive a child’s brain of learning opportunities. This is the beginning of developing empathy and frustration tolerance.
Kind Ignoring is Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Toddler strategy to just divert your gaze and rotate your body in a way that makes it clear that you are not deeply engaged with the minor transgressions of a toddler.
Note the word minor. Physical aggression and destruction of property is not minor. A consequence, natural or otherwise (we are leaving the playspace right now!) is appropriate for those actions. Kind Ignoring is best for whining, gentle tossing of toys to get your attention, or all the small acts that your child knows will get a rise out of you but are not rule-breakers. Your diverted gaze and slightly turned back are a message that says ” What you doing right now is not acceptable and I am giving you a chance to try another way to get my attention.” You may need to get up and move away a foot or two. Leaving the room is overkill and will confuse them.
It really can work! A very young child can work out that saying “please help”, touching your shoulder, etc., is going to immediately elicit a warm direct gaze from you, warm voices, and maybe even a hug. Yes, you want to exaggerate a bit for the smallest toddlers or special needs kids, who need a clear yes/no message to understand that they chose wisely this time. Special needs toddlers may need more practice and more obvious actions on your part to get the message, but they may benefit the most. I find that some parents do not think that their special needs child is ready for this junior time out approach, but they might need it more than a typically developing child. Being able to understand what is acceptable and what is unacceptable can be hard to learn. This is a kind way to help them navigate and build social skills.