Ask An Expert / Parenting Challenges

My 5-year-old son will not stay in time out. What am I doing wrong?

How to avoid being worn down by a child who bolts

Vasco Lopes, PsyD

My five-year-old son will not stay in time out. There is no TV or toys for him to play with. When I put him in time out, he will sit for 1 minute and take off running into another room. I will put him in another spot and reset the timer and tell him what he did wrong, why he has to be in time out. He will wait for a minute and take off again. I do encourage good behavior. What am I doing wrong?

This is a common challenge for parents trying to conduct time outs. You will put you child in time out, he will sit there for a short period of time, and then he’ll break the rules by getting up and leaving the time out chair. What parents normally do when that happens is catch the child (sometimes literally) and put him back in the chair. The problem is that this cycle can repeat several times during one session, and it often leads parents to get tired (emotionally and physically) and give up on the time out procedure altogether.

What would I encourage you to do differently when the child leaves the time out chair? Create a backup time out area that your child cannot escape from. For example, a bedroom where there aren’t any rewarding stimuli such as television, toys, or games. If he leaves the time out chair, take him to this inescapable backup area and briefly explain that he must stay there for one minute and be calm and quiet before he is allowed to leave. Once he has stayed in the backup area for one minute, you must return your child to the time out chair and restart the time he must serve. If he leaves the chair again, the cycle repeats.

If you consistently carry out this procedure, your child will quickly learn that getting up from the time out chair will not get him what he wants and that it is in his best interest to stay in the chair until his time is up.