Time outs are one of the most popular disciplinary tools for parents. They can be a great way to let kids know when their behavior is unacceptable without escalating the situation, which can distract kids from what you want them to learn.
But, like any tool, time outs need to be used correctly if you want them to be effective. If you’ve tried using time outs and your child doesn’t seem to be getting the message, it might be time to review how (and why) they should work.
There are a number of schools of thought about the best way to deploy them, but whichever you choose, using time outs consistently can help kids understand which behaviors aren’t (and are) appropriate and that means more positive, less fraught interactions all around.
Why use time outs?
Research shows that the most effective form of parenting is both warm and firm. That means a lot of affection and positive feedback for kids, but also consistent consequences when they act inappropriately. Time outs help you communicate that behavior is unacceptable without blowing your top.
And unlike emotional confrontations, time outs give both parties the time and space they need to calm down.
The point of a time out isn’t to shame or punish your child, but to diffuse an emotional situation, to help your child switch gears and learn to manage frustration and regulate his own behavior.
Effective time outs
Here are the basics to making the most out of time outs.
- Advance warning: Kids need to understand which behaviors are linked to which consequences. Work with your child to establish which behaviors—hitting, for instance, or not complying with instruction from you—lead to time outs so she knows what to expect.
- A pre-determined place: Designating a special chair, or a place on the stairs, also helps a child know what to expect. It’s also a good idea to label the time out chair just that, and not “the naughty chair” or something similar. Time outs work better when they are focused on teaching children how to behave, not on punishing them.
- A quick response: When a kid misbehaves in one of the ways you have discussed, make sure the following time out is immediate, and that you state the reason: “No hitting. Go to time out.” Be specific, brief, and unemotional. This helps ensure that the child is able to link her action with its consequence. Delayed consequences are ineffective because kids tend to feel you are just being punitive.
- Keep it brief: A standard formula for time outs is one minute per year of age. Some experts recommend a timer so a child can see that the time is being measured
- Keep it calm: The goal in a time out is for kids to sit quietly. Some experts recommend not starting the allotted time until your child is quiet. Others feel this is too hard for young children. They require that the child be completely quiet for 5 seconds before ending the time out. This way kids learn to associate good behaviors with the end of the time out and it sends the message to kids that yelling and screaming during a time out won’t work.
- Pay no attention: Kids in time out should be ignored—no talking to them or about them, not even gesturing in their direction, even if they’re whining, crying or protesting. By withdrawing your attention during the time out, you’re sending the message that misbehaving is not the way to get what they want
- Consistency is key: It’s tempting to put kids in time out whenever they’re acting inappropriately or pushing your buttons, but using time outs randomly makes it more difficult for kids to make the connection between specific misbehaviors and their consequences. Also, it is important that the time out occurs each and every time the specific target behavior occurs. If not, you are encouraging the child to think that he might be able to get away with it.
- No rewarding stimuli: In the time out chair the child should have no access to television, electronic devices, toys, or games. If you’re away from home, pick any spot that removes the child from distracting stimulation.
- If a child won’t stay in time out: If a child breaks the rules by leaving the time out chair too soon, put him in a backup time out area that he cannot escape from—i.e., a bedroom where there aren’t any rewarding stimuli such as television, toys, or games. Briefly explain that he must stay there for one minute and be calm and quiet before he is allowed to leave. Once he does that he should be returned to the time out chair, and the time he must stay there is restarted. If he leaves the chair again, the cycle repeats. Your child should learn quickly that it’s in his best interest to stay in the chair until the time is up.
After the time out
When kids are given time outs for not complying with your instruction, once a time out is finished, they should be asked to complete whatever task they were asked to do before the time out. This helps them understand that time outs aren’t escape routes.
Once the time out is over, you want to turn the attention back on, tuning in to whatever they are doing/working on/playing so that you can “catch them being good” and specifically praise them for a positive behavior. For example, if your child completes his time out, and then he plays gently with the dog, you’d want to let him know what he was doing right (i.e., “I love how nicely you’re playing with Lucky! You are using such nice gentle hands!”) This is reassuring your child that although he had to go to time out, he also is completely capable of doing good and positive things that make you proud and loving toward him.