- A Brief History of Time-outs
- Critics of Time-outs
- How Effective are Time-outs in Disciplining Children?
- How You can Use Time-outs
- Frequently Asked Questions
Get the Skinny on Time-Outs
A mom of a two-year-old: “My son thinks his name is ‘time-out.’ Does that mean I am overusing time-outs?”
“Wait, can you tell me more about that?” is a frequent question our Parenting Educators receive whenever the topic of time-outs is raised in one of our workshops. There seems to be a lot of confusion around how to use time-outs effectively with young children.
Time-outs have become a go-to parenting tool. Frequently, parents send their children to a chair or step or even a corner and tell the child to stay there for a pre-set period of time, typically one minute for each year of the child’s life.
So far, it seems pretty straightforward. So why an entire article to explain time-outs? Is there a right or wrong way to use time-outs? Is one way better than another? Are time-outs bad?
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Let’s start with how time-outs became such an important parenting tool. In the late 1950’s, Charles Ferster introduced the idea of “time-out from positive reinforcement” (Christophersen). The initial research sought to reward good behavior with lots of time-in and attention from parents, while discouraging inappropriate behavior by withdrawing parental attention.
Time-outs were considered a revolutionary discipline tool since it provided parents with a method to direct their children’s behavior without resorting to other, more destructive forms of punishment, including:
When used, children frequently behave when they believe they may be “caught,” but do not usually internalize the desired behaviors as their own.
Furthermore, children spend more time and energy thinking of what their parent has done wrong to them than reflecting on what they may have done wrong. As a result, children often do not change their behavior when corporal punishment is used.
In addition, hitting and spanking has been linked to other negative outcomes, such as increased violent behavior, greater incidence of mental disorders, and worse academic outcomes. See our article, “A Case against Corporal Punishment,” for more details.
Corporal punishment uses force to get children to comply. Here are some facts about corporal punishment:
Blaming tells children that they are at fault, even though they may lack the maturity or experiences to do any better at the time. For example: “It’s all your fault this spilled.”
Shaming globalizes the mistake and encompasses the entire child, not just his actions. For example: “You are so clumsy, irresponsible, lazy….”
Although time-outs initially offered a kinder, more gentle way to discipline children, over time they became more punitive, often with increased fighting between parent and child. Now, the direction of time-outs is moving toward a more “time-in” approach (Clarke, p1).
Children May Feel Abandoned
Some parent experts have raised concerns that separating your children from you when they are misbehaving and out-of-control sends the wrong message. Youngsters may interpret their being asked to sit alone as an act of abandonment. When they are most needy or scared and, therefore, quite vulnerable, they are cast aside.
They may come to believe that they only receive love when they hide their “true” feelings and only show the appropriate, socially approved facade.
Extroverted Children Need to Talk
Additionally, children who are “naturally extroverted may need to talk in order to think; time-out alone shuts down their thinking” (Clarke, p 17).
Time-Outs Alone do not Teach Children How to Behave
Others complain that time-outs on their own do nothing to teach a child how to behave. You separate children when they are getting out of control and you decide when they are ready to leave time-out.
Parents are doing the thinking and asking children to obey. They may go along, but blindly following rules is not the same as internalizing values and deciding for one’s self how one should behave. “Children need to learn to take care of their own behavior for themselves, not to please, placate, or be rewarded by others” (Clarke, p 1).
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To answer the question of the effectiveness of time-outs in disciplining children, you need to take a step back and think about your goals when disciplining.
In the short-term, your goal is usually to get your children to start or stop some behavior; for example, to start picking up toys and putting them on the shelves or to stop throwing the toys across the room.
In the long-term, the purpose is to teach your children the behaviors and skills they will need to be capable, caring, responsible, and resilient adults.
Parents typically want to use the easiest, most effective means to discipline their children. If hugging and smiling could get your kids to behave and fulfill your requests, parents would happily oblige. However, just showering your children with love and attention is not enough.
You may feel uncomfortable needing to be a rule enforcer and may be unsure of the best tactics to use. Adding to this uncertainty may be a smug smile from a four-year old, a series of “no-no-no’s” as your toddler reaches for a forbidden item, or a Texas-sized temper tantrum from a pint-sized three-year-old.
All of your logic goes out the door.
There is no reasoning with an out-of-control child. And you can’t parent effectively when you are out-of-control.
Defiant behavior needs more precise parenting, not a sledgehammer approach.
Unfortunately, very little in parenting is quick and no one method is going to produce the long-term types of changes you desire to see in your children. Certain strategies may result in short-term gains – getting your child to start or stop a behavior, but not in long-term growth.
So it is through the combination of short-term and long-term lenses that you can consider how effective time-outs are.
The purpose of time-outs is both to have your child comply with your requests and to do so in a way that maintains your connection with him, while still building his sense of being capable of growing and changing, of learning from his mistakes, and being worthy of your love.
So are time-outs effective? One study showed that when time-outs were used properly, children complied with their mother’s requests 83% of the time (Owen). Not a bad batting average!
When imposing a time-out, you will:
remove your child from the situation,
help him to calm down,
stop him from becoming out-of-control or locked in to a power struggle,
and give him a place in which to re-engage the thinking part of his brain.
Once regaining composure, your child should be more accommodating to starting or stopping whatever behavior you are requesting. If not, hopefully, he will at least be able to express his feelings and wishes in a way that you can understand and discuss.
Over time, your child will learn that certain behaviors remove him from his fun and from the attention he craves. He will also learn other more acceptable ways of getting his needs and wants met.
Questions to ask yourself
Before using a time-out or any disciplinary technique, ask yourself:
Are my expectations realistic for my child?
- Does my child need to learn something rather than being disciplined?
For example, rather than sending your child to time-out for interrupting you while you are on the phone, perhaps he needs to learn how you would like him to let you know he needs your attention.
Is my child misbehaving to get my attention?
Is my child misbehaving so I will take him out of a situation he doesn’t like; i.e, taking him out of a religious service or away from a long family dinner?
Am I unwittingly encouraging the behavior with such statements as “My little wrecking ball” or “my little princess?”
Am I expecting too much from my child because I am tired and just need him to behave?
Is he acting in an uncharacteristic way? Perhaps he is getting sick or hungry, or spending his energy and patience on mastering a new skill or task.
Does every day feel like a challenge and much more so than other families I see around me? Perhaps you need to check with your pediatrician that something else isn’t going on.
Build a strong relationship
The first step to having time-outs be an effective tool in your parenting belt is to create an enriched, time-in environment which includes providing lots of positive feedback for desired behavior. This feedback can include brief, but frequent, check-ins that do not interrupt play, such as a smile or thumbs up when your child is complying.
It is easy to miss these opportunities when kids are cooperating. You may get wrapped up in your own to-do list and forget that you are only accomplishing so much because they are behaving. Yet, when they do get rammy or refuse to get dressed on your schedule, you hit the roof and give plenty of attention to the misbehavior. It goes a lot better if you reverse your energies.
In exchange for your children giving you time to finish your work, ask them or suggest ways you can spend time together doing something fun.
Respond sooner rather than later
Ideally you can catch your child’s escalating behavior before he is totally out-of-control or has firmly dug in his heels. Some children give you a long-lead time; some do not. You know your child best.
If he rarely changes a “no” to a “yes,” then take action at the first sign of objections. As you see the little fists forming and that defiant look in your child’s eye, suggest that you move to a quiet, neutral area. Some useful ideas include:
Rocking on chair
Going outside and feeling a cool breeze
- Looking at clouds
Sitting on your lap
Laying down and getting a back rub
Taking sips of cold water
Having your child sit alone – if that helps him decompress
The idea is to create a break in the action and help your child calm down. Again this suggested rest time happens before you both have reached your breaking point and are relaxed enough to still be able to connect in a positive way.
Keep it simple
When your child needs a time-out, use the fewest words possible to convey your message. Typically, things have already gotten a little heated; children cannot listen to your words or engage the thinking part of their brains when upset.
Your “lecture” will be beyond their comprehension at the moment and most likely will be blocked out. Your attention and words may only increase the negative behavior.
Simple commands such as “No throwing, time-out now” or even briefer “Throwing, time-out” can be used. It is important to stay as calm and un-emotional as possible and to avoid name-calling or labeling; you would not want to say, “You have to go to time-out because you are bad.”
Once you are both calm, you can talk with your child about what was happening before you called a time-out and what needs to happen before he re-enters the situation. You can ask your child if he is ready to go back or if he needs more time to calm down.
Time-outs have been found to be most effective when your child decides on his own when to come out once he has calmed down, no matter how long the time has been; if the child can settle down in a minute, that is fine; if it takes twenty minutes, then the child needs twenty minutes (Christophersen).
It depends on the age
The following guidelines can help you to use time-outs appropriately at different ages (Christophersen):
12 to 18 months – use distraction, remove the child from the situation and direct his attention to something else, perhaps a toy or the clouds outside. Sit with him and help him calm down if upset.
18 months to 3 years – Remove child from situation. Sit with him in a quiet place till he calms down. Discuss briefly why he is taking a time-out. Once calm, discuss appropriate behavior for when he re-enters the situation.
3 years on up – Direct child to take a time-out. If able, let the child sit alone to work out strong feelings and figure out ways to self-sooth. Once the child is calm, you can discuss what behavior required the time-out and what he can do next time to act appropriately.
Do I have to sit with my child during the time-out? Isn’t that just giving in? Isn’t that what he wanted in the first place?
Most of the suggestions listed in this article include your sitting with your child when he is upset. That is a very different view than is touted on many television shows and parenting articles. Often, parents worry that they are “giving in” to their child if they take a time-out with him.
Assuming that you are still holding your child to the stated request, you are not giving in. While getting your child to comply may take longer, you are holding him accountable for proper behavior. You are not letting him off the hook nor are you ignoring the behavior.
At the same time, you are showing and teaching your child:
that he is more important to you than his starting or stopping a behavior AND that you believe him capable of complying.
that when he is overwhelmed by strong emotions, there are things he can do to calm himself down.
how he can remove himself from escalating a situation.
what behaviors are necessary to be successful in life, and he does not have to do it alone; you will be with him to support and encourage him.
While some children will need their own space to calm down, many will need you there – especially younger children. As children mature, you can direct them to sit by themselves. They may protest and that is okay. You can let an upset child know that “while you love him endlessly, right now you both need to calm down. Once that happens, you will discuss together what happens next.”
Should I give my children warnings, and if so, how many?
Most parents will want to give a warning to be sure their children know what is being requested of them. However, you want to avoid giving so many warnings that your children don’t listen to you until you start screaming; until then, they learn you don’t mean business.
The author of One, Two, Three Magic suggests providing three warnings before you take action. That offers a check for parents. If you tend to be overly strict and expect instant compliance, it gives your child a little wiggle room to change gears and comply. If you tend to be more lax, three warnings will remind you to stop asking and to start taking action.
While at the beginning it may mean that you have to set limits and follow-through more often, the frequency should decline as your children understand that you mean what you say!
Do children need to sit quietly in a chair to count as time-out?
Much energy can be spent trying to get kids to stay put. If the main idea is for children to calm down, then the exact place and way they do so becomes less important.
Some children may like to sit on the stairs, near the activity so they do not feel banished and abandoned. Some children need their own space when upset and calm down more quickly if they can leave the room and be by themselves. A more active child may want to let off some steam by jumping up and down.
You know your child best and will know if the activities will help him calm down. Focusing on a child’s sitting in a particular place in a particular way may create additional battles and wind up escalating, rather than decelerating, the situation.
Should I talk to my child when he is in time-out?
While your child is in time-out, do not pay undo attention to him by reminding him how long he needs to stay in time-out, discussing what he did wrong, demanding that he be quiet, or getting drawn into debates about his behavior. You will definitely want to discuss all of these issues – once he is calm. While he is in time-out and still upset, do not talk to him or turn it into play time.
Often, if children have not been getting enough attention from you, they will find ways to get your attention by pushing your buttons. And if they cannot do so with positive behavior, they will do so with negative behavior.
For example, perhaps you did not notice your child quietly playing by himself; he may try to get your attention by jumping on the sofa. If that gets your attention and gets him sent to time-out where he is expected to sit by himself, he may up the ante by starting to throw things. Remember, for kids, negative attention is better than no attention.
Receiving lots of attention from you when they behave is what makes time-outs (from the situation and most importantly from you) so powerful. You want your child to associate being calm and following your rules and requests with having lots of positive interactions.
The suggestion to ignore your child’s complaints when in time-out assumes that your child is trying to push your buttons by doing something minor like kicking the steps or expressing a typical or expected level of distress such as crying or stomping his feet.
If your child is clearly upset or appears to be in undo emotional pain, by all means ask him if he would like you to sit with him. Then, you can ask if he would like you to rub his back or engage in other activities that he typically enjoys and which help him to relax.
What should I talk about with my child when the time-out is over?
Once your child is calm, you will still need to help him understand what behavior he needed to start or to stop.
You can begin by asking your child if he knows why he needed time-out and what he could do differently. You are not looking to rehash what went wrong and leave your child feeling worse. You want him to learn from his mistakes and make better decisions going forward.
Some more analytic children (thinkers rather than feelers) become quite embarrassed when discussing what they did “wrong;” if yours is resistant to talking about mistakes, focus on the facts and move quickly to what he can do differently in the future.
You may need to reinforce the rules, to explain your reasons for your requests, and show your child how he can “fix” the problem – either now or in the future.
Read “Consequences for Preschoolers” for more ideas.
State your rules clearly.
Use the fewest words possible when sending your child to “time-out.”
Express your confidence in his ability to calm himself, “You need to calm down. I know you can do it.”
Do not give attention unless clearly upset.
Allow your child to leave time-out when calm. “Once you have calmed down and sitting still, you can get up and rejoin us.”
Take time to discuss what your child did, how he can make amends in the short-term, and what he can do differently in the future.
All of this will and does take time, which can leave parents wondering about the effectiveness of the process. That is when it is helpful to take a step back and remember that you have many, many years to teach your children all of the behaviors, skills, and values you hope to see in them when they enter adulthood.
Your immediate goal is to help children to behave in a way that leaves them feeling good about themselves (even if they know that they still have a ways to go to behaving in a “good” way all of the time) and leaves you feeling good about the way you handle a particular situation and how you parent in general.
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- Christophersen, Edward, PhD, ABPP and Susan Van Scoyoc, BSc, MSc , “What Makes Time_Out Work (and Fail)? In Developmental and Behavioral News, American Acdmey of Pediatrics, Volume 16, Number 1, Spring 2007
- Clarke, Jean Illsley, “Time-In: When Time-Out Doesn’t Work.”
- Moyer, Melinda Wenner, “Are Time-Outs Messing Up Your Kids?” http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/the_kids/2013/04/should_i_give_my_misbehaving_kid_a_timeout.html
- Owen, Daniela, Amy Slep and Richard Heyman, “The Effect of Praise, Positive Nonverbal Response, Reprimand, and Negative Nonverbal Response on Child Compliance: A Systematic Review” Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, December 2012, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp 364-385, Date: 24 Aug 2012
- Phelan, Thomas, “One, Two, Three Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12”
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