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Parenting Toddlers and Teens

Expert Answers for Tough Questions

1602_ParentalGuidance_QThings disappear when my 13-year-old son’s friend visits our house, and I don’t know how to handle it. I am convinced this boy is stealing things from our home. I’m talking about little things, but it only happens when he is visiting. He and my son are very good friends. I know his parents, but not very well. Where do I start?


1602_ParentalGuidance_APetty theft at this age is not that unusual as young teens look for thrills and test limits. In addition, kids at this age can be very impulsive.

Sometimes we look for a deeper meaning behind this behavior, as it may speak to a need to fill an emotional hole. No matter what is driving the behavior, it needs to be addressed. If you are certain beyond a doubt that this child is stealing, I think I would begin by discussing the issue with your child. Tell him what you believe, and that for this reason you have become uncomfortable having this friend in your home. This discussion should be calm on your part as you express that you are coming from a place of concern and not anger. Ask your son if he has seen or suspected that his friend is stealing, and if so, ask him how it makes him feel. You may open up a useful discussion on the importance of trust, honesty, and your own expectations for your son. I would suggest that you tell your son that while he can continue to hang out with this friend, you need to ask that he not come to your house. This may be enough to send the message that the friend needs to shape up. A month would be a reasonable period of time for this break.

Once he is invited back, if things start to disappear again, then it is time to go to his parents and tell them what is going on. This will be a difficult discussion and you might find that the parents become defensive. That is a risk you will have to take. I would then ban that child from your home indefinitely. Just know that while this behavior is not rare, most kids outgrow it and do not go on to a life of crime.


1602_ParentalGuidance_QI have seen a friend try to give a time-out to her 2-year-old. She holds the child in a special time-out chair and tells him it’s time-out. I always thought the idea was to take an adult’s attention away from the child. Is this not the point? Is he too young for time-out?


1602_ParentalGuidance_ATime-out is one of the most misunderstood parenting concepts I know of. Let’s start by reviewing the purpose of time-out, including when and how it is useful.

For very young children, usually under the age of two, the most effective approach to dealing with undesirable behavior is simply to distract the child or redirect him to a more desirable behavior. Temper tantrums are very undesirable and particularly common around the age of two, as children begin to assert their independence and test limits. Time-out can be useful as one of several techniques to deal with this kind of out-of-bounds behavior. Time-out, however, is not meant to be a punishment, but rather a tool for the child and a way to stop the behavior, in this case the tantrum. Properly administered, the time-out gives the young child an opportunity to regain self-control.

The idea behind the time-out is to move the child to a place where he can play out the tantrum in a safe environment and one in which he will not hurt himself or destroy property. Some children will sit on a chair or a step without being restrained. Others simple will not comply, and may bang their heads, or throw whatever they can get their hands on. It is not unusual in this instance to contain the child during the tantrum. If a child needs to be held in time-out, there should be very little conversation during the length of the time-out. Parents can simply say, “When you calm yourself down, Mommy will let you go.” This tells the child that he is making a choice, and that the choice he is making has a consequence. This approach is most useful once a child has language skills.

What is key in this situation is what comes after the tantrum has passed. It is not a good idea to follow up a time-out with a lot of cuddles or kisses. This sends a confusing message to the child, and may indeed backfire as a way to get attention. Parents should simply state what happened: “You wanted a cookie and Mommy said no because it’s too close to dinner, and you got upset.” Then, move on.

The worst thing a parent can do is to give in to a temper tantrum. By doing this, even occasionally, parents train children to have tantrums because the child is intermittently getting what he wants. In effect, the child learns that no doesn’t always mean no. To make it easier to remain consistent, it is important for parents not to overuse time-out. If you find yourself putting your child in time-out constantly, you need to look at whether you are creating an environment in which your child can have success.  This becomes the parent’s challenge and responsibility. As parents, our job is to set up our children for success.

Susan Brown holds a master’s degree in developmental psychology, as well as degrees in early childhood education and psychology. A mother, teacher, children’s book author, and nationally known family educator, she works with clients at Everyday Parenting Solutions.
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