How To Use Time-Out Effectively

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Tips for how to use a time-out, or isolation, as a discipline method with your little one. Change behavior with this simple parenting tool.

Toddler throwing a fit and having a tantrum

A time out can be a very useful discipline method. You can effectively stop or change behavior with a simple amount of time in isolation.

But that doesn’t make using a time-out simple and easy.

A “time-out” is a tricky discipline tool simply because just about everyone does it in some form and everyone has an opinion on it. So to look around for an effective “time-out” strategy can be hard.

You will find varying opinions on when you should use a time-out, what age, where to have it, and how long the time-out should last.

So it can get confusing. Let’s see if we can bring some clarity to the situation. I will start with my policy, then discuss the policies found from different sources.

Best Times to Use a Time-Out

Here are the instances when I recommend using a time out.

It is important when you use a time-out that you keep the child isolated.

Any attention from you–positive or negative–will reinforce the behavior.

This is why a time-out in public just doesn’t work. You can’t leave a child alone in public, and interaction from you removes the negative side of a “time-out.”

Best times for a time out for discipline pinnable image

When the Child Needs Emotional Control

Child sets the length of isolation

My number one reason for using a time-out is if the child is screaming and/or crying and needs some time to compose him/herself.

I don’t mean crying because the child got hurt or something. I mean the child is essentially crying in a tantrum sort of way.

I have the child sit in our office or in his/her room. The child can come out on their own when they are done crying and ready to be happy. This might last less than 60 seconds or it might last 30 minutes.

If the child comes back from this time-out still crying and upset, I send the child back with the instruction to stay until they have calmed down. I let them know they can choose the length of time, but if they come out still having a tantrum, then I will choose the length of time instead.

It is important to note that your child needs to be old enough AND mature enough to handle the freedom of coming out when calm. This should happen around 3ish years old. Some may be able to do this younger and some might need to be older.

There are many times the child will go to her room and spend time alone cooling down and playing with her toys. This “time-out” is simply a chance for her to calm down without screaming, yelling, hitting, stomping, etc. It is teaching them to take a moment when needed to gain control.

Cooling Off Period

Parent sets the length of isolation

Sometimes the child just needs to cool off. This often happens after some big stimulating event, like a family vacation or Christmas Day.

If the child is getting worked up and upset at very small things, I have them go take some time in their room for a set amount of time.

They can play and really do whatever they want in most cases. Sometimes I instruct them to play on their bed (I do this if the child really needs a break and I am hoping they might take a nap).

In these situations, they are to stay in the room until I come and get them.

This is like a mini independent playtime. You might even just say, “We are going to do independent playtime right now!” even if it is way off their normal schedule.

This is used when you see the child is about to lose it and on a short fuse and just needs some time to relax and be alone.

I found this much more needed for my children who are introverts than my children who are extroverts.

Your child might just need time to be alone after being around a lot of people, but children don’t always recognize that need.

Sibling Break

Parent sets the length of isolation

If my kids are not getting along, then they are to play in their rooms alone. They can play, but just not with each other.

I do this for the remainder of time left before the next “event” in our daily routine is supposed to happen.

Punishment

Parent sets the length of isolation

Another reason to use time-out is for the actual consequence for an action.

With my kids, I rarely let things get to a point where the “time-out” needed to be used for punishment. I would usually use time alone to help them chill out before it got to a point where it needed to be a “punishment.”

I would do this to remove him from the situation before the real punishment happens (my most common use of punishment is logical and natural consequences).

I found time-out as a punishment, or consequence for actions, to not really be an effective means of changing behavior with my oldest two children.

They are both introverts. Neither of them being alone in the least, so it really isn’t a punishment for them. Again, it might serve as a “holding place” for the child before the punishment, but is not the punishment in and of itself.

My two youngest children are extroverts. The “time-out” could be an effective simple consequence for them. They both love to be around people, so requiring them to take a break was something that motivated them to change their behavior.

I remember two instances of time-out with a 21-month-old McKenna (my third child).

The first time, she hit Kaitlyn with a toy. Her intent was out of fun, but I wanted it clear to her that it was not okay to hit.

I put her in her crib for 2-3 minutes. She was very upset by this. It actually curbed her “hitting” behavior rather effectively. She got the message.

Another time, I was doing her hair. I had her sit on the counter in the bathroom.

She kept standing up. I told her to sit and stay seated, but she kept standing up.

I didn’t ever move away from her, but I still found this to be a safety issue.

She would not listen and I really had limited options. Not doing her hair would not be a punishment for her. She was too young for a loss of privilege connection to work.

Since she would not listen and since the time-out had worked well earlier, I moved on to that.

Again, she was very upset. She cried for the full 3ish minutes she was in there.

I got her out and immediately went back to the bathroom and sat her on the counter. She was a perfect angel for her hair.

A time out can be a great punishment when your child is disobedient at the dinner table, also.

Time Out Guidelines by Age

As you might imagine, a time-out will look different for different ages. Look at isolation as an opportunity to change/modify behavior and/or cope with frustration.

Isolation for 10-12 month old

“Simply put, this means removing the child from an act or place of conflict and putting the child in his or her crib”

On Becoming Babywise Book 2 (page 73)

If you have a baby and your baby is doing something she shouldn’t, a time-out can be a great way to convey that message.

As On Becoming Babywise Book 2 points out, the child will easily be able to note the cause and effect relationship between misbehaving and the isolation.

Read: Discipline Methods for Baby: 10 Months and Up

Isolation for 12-18 month old

Again, isolation is defined as removing the child from an act or place of conflict (page 136).

For your 12-18 month old in this pre-todder phase of life, you can use a crib, playpen, or high chair (when rolled to a quiet place).

Something these three items have in common is that the child is not able to remove herself from the location of the isolation, so anything you have where  you can safely put your pre-toddler and she can’t get out of is suitable for isolation.

Also note that it is called isolation, which means alone. I will say, however, that I have heard from parents who simply turn the high chair around with the family present for the “isolation” and they report this works. So that might be an option for you, but for most children, alone will be a key factor.

While you might use a time-out at this age, something like distraction might be a better discipline method for your pre-toddler.

Isolation for 18-24 month–possibly up to 36 month

As the child gets older, the alone part of isolation really does become a more vital part of “isolation.”

A part of the punishment here is that the child is removed from social interaction. The child has done something that has led to her not being able to handle the privilege of social contact.

Most children in this age range have better self-control, so another room, a bed, or a chair might be suitable.

This is an age where isolation is a common response for temper tantrums. If this is the case, have the child can get out when the child is calm and happy (On Becoming Toddlerwise, page 102).

Read: How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums

Isolation for 3 and 4 year old

I like the guidelines in the book On Becoming Preschoolwise for what isolation is and isn’t. Here are some guidelines (page 167):

  • Do not do one minute per age
  • Put your child somewhere alone
  • Tell your child that when he has calmed down and ready to be happy, you will come get him. This is why you do not do one minute per age. Your aim is to change behavior.
  • Once you get your child, ask your child if he is ready to apologize. If not, isolation needs to continue

Isolation for 3-7 year old

The point of discipline is always to change behavior, now and in the future. You do not want to over-use discipline methods nor do you want to use discipline methods in the wrong moment.

A time-out, or isolation, has had great moments of use up to this point in your child’s life. It is time to use it more sparingly.

“Isolation should be reserved for drawing attention to the more serious offenses” (page 216).

A great point made in the book On Becoming Childwise is that isolation can be “very effective when used appropriately–and ineffective when misused” (pages 216-217).

Tips for Time-Out Success

  • Don’t yell or be otherwise angry when putting your child in time-out (or any other time I would add)
  • Impose a Time-out swiftly–as in immediately
  • Do not put your child somewhere frightening
  • Decide ahead of time which actions you will use a time-out for. Have a plan. I have three distinct categories that use various forms of a “time-out.” I also have one category that is vague (punishment). I basically use this for talking back, hitting, and complete defiance with no other options available to me
  • Be consistent. Do not do a time-out for hitting one day then nothing the next
  • Only use time out if it works for your child
  • Don’t worry about your child growing to hate the crib, highchair, bedroom, bed, lazy boy, etc. Your child–yes, even a 10 month old–is smart enough to differentiate between bedtime and isolation time.
  • Do not over-use a time out and do not turn to it first when there is conflict
  • Be calm and remain calm
  • You might say something like, “I know you want that toy, but it is not okay to hit your sister. Because you hit her, you are having some alone time.” This adds the element of you acknowledging that you know why your child did what she did, and that it is not okay.

Parenting the Strong-Willed Child book

This book has a very specific process dedicated to effective time-out. In fact, it is an entire chapter.

If you really feel out of control and like time-out is a good answer for you, definitely refer to this book.

Forehand and Long claim their process to be proven by research. They give appropriate locations, the proper sequence, time length, and what kind of interaction should be happening before, during, and after the time-out. It is a very simple, straightforward process.

An important note from this book is to not have isolation as a discipline tool unless and until you are spending adequate time with your child each day.

Another key point is to not lecture. They say a lecture often removes the learning that happened.

You can say, “You are having a time out because you did X” but that is about it.

They point out this is not the time for lectures. You can talk about it at another time when you are both calmer.

Read: Training in Times of Non-Conflict

Love and Logic Magic book

This book also has some specific ideas for effective time-out (page 73):

  • The child stays in the room until the child is calm–then add one to two minutes
  • When you go get your child, say, “I love you. That was too bad you had to have a time-out.” Remember, Love and Logic theory is all about the empathy.
  • Do not lecture the child

Parenting with Love and Logic book

Parenting With Love and Logic is another book with a specific time-out process (pages 55-56):

  1. Say nicely, “uh-oh, looks like someone needs some alone time!” Quickly and gently take the child to the isolation spot–this is anywhere the child can be alone.
  2. Say nicely, “Feel free to have a fit. We will see you when  you are sweet.”
  3. Give the child choices if appropriate (would you like the door open or shut?)–I don’t actually love this step in the process
  4. The child stays in the room until she is calm. Do not talk to the child at all during this time
  5. Once the child is calm, set the timer for 4-5 more minutes.
  6. If the child remained calm during these minutes, she can return to the family. Do not lecture about the problem (have you noticed a pattern to not lecture?)

Read: Parenting With Love and Logic: Everything You Need to Know

Conclusion

I think as you look over these guidelines from various sources, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the exact process of how to complete a time-out is not necessarily what is important.

What is most important is the consistency of it and that the method you use works for your child.

Review the methods and then decide which you think is the best fit for your child.

Modify it as necessary. Change it up if needed.

Think it out, plan it out, maybe even write it out. Have a plan. Then stick to that plan.

Do review to ensure you are following the best idea for your little one, but beyond that, stay consistent. 

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This post originally appeared on this blog in July of 2011

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13 thoughts on “How To Use Time-Out Effectively”

  1. I'm so glad you posted this! I have been wondering lately if I use time-out too much. My 18 month old son has recently decided screaming when he is frustrated is the thing to do. Whether it's because he's in his high-chair waiting for food to be served, or he's in the carseat and doesn't want to be. When we're at home I gently tap his mouth and ask him to not scream, if he does again he will get a time-out. But now I'm thinking I might need to do something else because it's not really working. There are times he's even tried to hit my hand out of the way or hit me when I ask him to not scream. What do you suggest?

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  2. Great post. I have question about the lecture aspect of it, purely out of curiosity. Can you expand (or did your resources expand) on why they think lecturing or talking about it afterwards removes the lesson from the experience? That's interesting to me. I'm very talkative so I could see myself in the future over-explaining things to my children. In fact, I have already done this with some of my nieces when they were younger (primary school age) and I noticed that they would quickly lose interest in what I was saying, as if they lacked the ability to follow after a certain amount of time. (I kind of ramble!)

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  3. I'm with Jessica, it did seem like everything listed said that there shouldn't be an explanation. As I am a talker as well, I don't really understand why the punishment shouldn't be explained? I'm not disagreeing, just not understanding 🙂

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  4. I'm with the prior 2 comments:) I've read Love and Logic and I kind of like that catchphrase and put them down for alone time until they are ready to be happy (in the version I read you can actually keep them in their room-the door open is not a choice). Anyways, they say just to move on. And I don't remember what Lehman says.BUT BW talks about the need to apologize. I think there is a forgiveness/repetance/restoration process talked about in GKGW (not sure if i got that right-i haven't gotten that yet). So that seems contrary. What do you think?What do your kids do?

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  5. Stephanie, I would guess a big reason for his screaming is that he is able to think what he wants in his head but is at that age where they can't verbalize it yet. So I would work on some things to teach him to sign to communicate. Teach him to sign "please." Teach him to fold his arms and wait patiently. Also, be sure you don't put him in the high chair too early.For the carseat, try bringing along distractions for him to take his mind off of hating the carseat. Try books on tape, music, snacks, toys, etc.A time out is a logical thing to do when the child is screaming at the table. If you choose to do that, I would require him to sit nicely when he got back to the table and say "please" when he got back. Don't bring him back and hand him food right away. Model what you want him to do and help him to do it. Then praise him for speaking nicely.

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  6. Jessica, I think a big part of it is they all basically claim that the lecture removes the learning aspect. When you lecture, you can create a situation where the child turns his feelings of being sorry for what he did to being mad at you for putting him in time out. So a brief explanation is good so they know what is up, but too much turns the emotions outward instead of inward.

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  7. Jessica and Mrs. Martin, I would add that sometimes I do spend time talking with the child–but that really only happens with Brayden and it is rare. And I don't lecture, I talk about the morals behind the actions. So I wouldn't go so far as to say a discussion sometimes is absolutely a no.Just think of you when you mess up. You know you messed up. How would someone in charge of you lecturing you make you feel?

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  8. Michael and Yvonne, I don't think the child apologizing is the same as a parent lecturing. I think having the child apologize for what he did, asking forgiveness, and the parent accepting it actually lends itself to agreeing with the "no lecture" idea. You can't accept the apology of someone and lecture them at the same time. That is not accepting 🙂 A great idea is to choose a time of non-conflict to go into further info and further training on the issue at hand.

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  9. So i think this time out is a great idea.. but then what happens at meal time when my daughter chooses not to eat? It can be her favourite meal and she chooses to hold it in her mouth… for what seems like forever some times… VERY FRUSTRATING for mommy!! We have done the timer thing… which kinda works… and then she has to eat the rest next time… but yesterday she held her last bite in her mouth for almost an hour ( we have had longer… ) timer went… i took away her plate of food… and she sat there… and kept it in her mouth… everyone was gone from the table. Her brother was having a bath which she wanted too also… but that wouldnt push her to a point of swallowing… then what??

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  10. Jes,Are you telling her to take one more bite and she just holds it in her mouth? Or is it just her last bite and she isn't swallowing? If she just isn't swallowing, I would just have her spit it out when mealtime is over. Some people just hold food in their mouth for a long time, but will outgrow that.If it is her way of defying you, then it isn't just about meals. This will be popping up throughout your day. I personally would not turn mealtime into your battle ground. Get to the root of the obedience issue (see posts on "freedoms").

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