A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Mom scolding child

8 Steps to an Effective Time-Out

Let’s face it, young kids misbehave at times. Starting from an early age they test their limits and ours. To deal with this, most parents (about 85% of us) have tried to use time-out as a discipline method. I know I have! But time-out doesn’t always work and may not be appropriate for all children including those with emotional, physical, or developmental challenges. For many, though, it fails because it’s not done correctly.

Learning to do time-out well can help both you and your child. And it can prevent you from resorting to harsher forms of discipline.

Time-out is actually an old technique first discussed about 100 years ago and in widespread use starting in the 1970s. Since then, we’ve studied what works well and what doesn’t.

Here’s what we know about a successful time-out:

  1. Use one warning only. Time-out works best if there is very little time between the bad behavior and the time-out. Give just one brief, clear warning: “If you don’t stop kicking the chair you’ll go to time-out.” Giving more than one warning will be much less effective!
  2. Give a simple explanation. Let’s say you gave your one warning and are marching the offender off to time-out. This is not the time for a discussion or a lot of talking. You know how the teacher in the Peanuts cartoons sounds? “Wah wah wah wah wah.” That’s what kids hear when we talk too much. Keep it simple: “You hit your brother. Hitting hurts and is not okay. Time out.”
  3. Make it boring and safe. If your child is having fun in time-out it won’t work, right? So there should be nothing to do. No toys. Not much to look at. No attention from anyone (no reassuring waves, smiles). Definitely no electronics. Avoid using a bedroom – that should be kept a happy place! In my house time-out was held in the hallway with all the doors shut but the lights on. The misbehaving child would sit at the end of the hallway until it was over.
  4. End it when they’re calm. Time-out is not over when the child feels they’re ready to leave, it’s over when you say it is! It’s much more effective for a grown-up to decide when the time-out is over and to require the child to be calm and quiet before release.
  5. Choose a time limit that lasts about a minute per year of age. You mean my 16-year-old has to sit for 16 minutes, right? Well, no. Time-outs are less effective after age 7. Also, very short time-outs or very long ones don’t work well. Try for a match between the time and your child’s age; a 4-year-old will usually respond well to time-outs that are about 4 minutes long.
  6. Hold them in place if need be. I have 3 kids. One really responded well to time-outs. She put herself in time-out when she realized she had done something wrong! And another? Well, he wasn’t a fan. I’d sometimes have to sit holding him (his back to my tummy with my arms wrapped around him) to get him to stay in place. I didn’t talk to him but I did wait until he was calm.
  7. Talk when it’s over. After you release your child from jail – oops, I mean time-out – you need to talk about the behavior that got them there in the first place. Also, if they were in time-out because they didn’t do something you asked them to do – they need to do it now. For example, if you’d asked them to clear their plate from the table, they need to be told again to do it. “Remember, you had a time-out because you didn’t clear your plate. Now please go clear it.”
  8. Make “time in” be in a good place. Bring your child back to “time in” where there’s lots of affection and interesting activities. Without this contrast, time-outs will be less effective. If time-out is a calm break from a chaotic and unhappy place – kids will be happy to stay there.

Simply put, the point of time-out is to remove a child from an environment they enjoy. Your kids enjoy being with you most of all. They love to play and interact with their family and friends. So they’ll learn quickly if, after a brief warning, they have to leave where they really enjoy to sit alone and think things over.

If these steps don’t help and you’re concerned about your child’s behavior, please let your pediatrician know. We’ll work with you to find ways to help them.

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