The Proper Use of Time-Out

The Proper Use of Time-Out

Time-out is probably one of the most well known and widely used disciplinary techniques to emerge since the baby boom of the 50's. It was originally used as an alternative to spanking and other forms of corporal punishment, and became very popular with the advent of behaviorally oriented parenting programs. Today it is still considered a useful tool in the parents' bag of tricks, and it can be very effective if employed properly. We offer the following guidelines.


The primary function of time-out is to interrupt a non-desirable behavior and at the same time provide an opportunity for the child to collect herself before continuing to act. The non-desirable behavior can include breaking a rule such as no hitting, or not complying with a request or expectation such as completing a chore after being told. Time-out is used to remind the child of the rule as well as reinforce the idea that deviation from it, or refusal to complete a request, are unacceptable behaviors that will not be tolerated. For very active children or overly reactive children, time-out is a way to gain some distance from one's emotions long enough to refocus and attend to a task or even remember and apply a rule.

Where and How Long?

Time out works best in sight of the parent. I would suggest that you set up a chair in some part of the main house like the living room, dining room, or corner of the kitchen. There is no need to place the chair facing the wall. The only requirement is that it is out of the way of other activity and within your sight. The length of time should be relatively short. The standard recommended time is one minute for each year of age. The idea is literally to break up the current behavior and readjust the mindset. Long time-outs don't bring about better results. To the contrary, children lose track of why they were placed in time-out in the first place, or worse yet, they become resentful which defeats the purpose. You want them to have a moment to think about what they did or didn't do and reinforce compliance afterward. A short amount of time is all that is needed.

What About Sending My Child To His Room?

As stated above, time out works best within sight of the parent. There is another technique called the "cooling-off period" or "positive time-out" which does usually take place in the child's room. This is used when there is a power struggle resulting in angry feelings on one or both sides. The idea is to send the child to his room so he (and you) can cool off, and then return when calm to solve the issue at hand. It's similar to what adults do when they find themselves at odds and angry feelings get in the way of resolving the problem. They take a break from the argument and come back to it when they're calm. With the cooling off period, the child is allowed to soothe himself in his room by playing with toys, reading, or whatever he likes to do that can distract him from his angry feelings. Once calm, he's allowed to come out of his room on his own and resume dealing with the problem. This is a higher level technique that is useful for children who don't necessarily have a lot of impulse control problems. I would suggest not using both of these at the same time. For younger children, and especially for ADHD children, regular time-out is more effective. The cooling off period is better as children move towards adolescence.

How To Implement

If you have not used time out before, you will want to explain it to your child ahead of time. The explanation should include several points. (1) You realize you cannot make your child follow the rules if they decide not to, but you can provide a consequence any time they break a rule or do not follow through with a request. (2) The consequence you are going to use is time-out. Show them the chair and explain that when they break a rule or don't comply with a request, you will simply tell them to go to time-out. You should actually state the rule that was broken and then say "Go to time out." (3) There will be no discussion about this, and you will not talk to them while they are in time-out. There will be no getting up to go to the bathroom, no drinks of water, and so forth. While in time-out, there is no communication. (4) You will be the timekeeper and tell your child when she can get up. It's extremely important to stick to these rules. Allowing your child to pull you into a discussion or further explanation defeats the purpose and will ultimately render the technique ineffective.

Parent's Demeanor

It is very important that you remain both firm and neutral throughout the entire time-out process. The idea is to let the child feel the impact of his own actions which he will do best if you don't supply any other emotions to the situation that can distract him from this task. If you get angry, he'll be more concerned with what your anger means to him then he will about having broken a rule. Or he may become angry himself and focus more on plotting revenge. The idea is not to infuse the situation with energy, and especially negative energy. Keep in mind that time out is not a punishment, but rather a disciplinary technique. You should avoid adding any punitive elements to the process. Above all, refrain from verbal reprimands such as "How many times have you broken that rule now?" or "When are you going to learn?" You absolutely will dilute the power of time-out if you do this.

What If My Child Won't Go To Time-Out?

You should physically escort her to the time out chair. If necessary, hold her firmly in the chair by standing behind the chair and placing your hands on her shoulders. When she is sitting still for 10 seconds, you can begin the timing. Don't engage in conversation while doing this, and of course, you should not use physical force. Usually a firm hand on the shoulder will do the trick. What you're really communicating is that compliance is not an option in this case. If you have a child that will not stay in time out even under these circumstances, then most likely the relationship between the two of you needs some repairing and rebuilding. Disciplinary techniques will only work if the parent-child relationship is intact, and the child cares about how you feel about her. Another possibility is that you have a child who has an extremely low tolerance for frustration. See Ross Greene's book called The Explosive Child for more assistance.

When Time-Out Is Over

When time-out is over, return to the original problem. If a chore was not completed, then it must be done now. If a rule was broken, you can address what led up to the problem if that seems appropriate. An example would be if your child hit his sister because she broke one of his toys. You might want to discuss with him how he felt when she broke the toy, and then how he might better have addressed his anger. It's not helpful to lecture after time-out and you should avoid any further recrimination. Also, be sure to give positive feedback to your child for completing time-out, especially if he behaved well during the process.

Final Thoughts

Time-out is just one tool for effectively encouraging good behavior. There are many others including spending time with children, giving positive feedback, knowing and understanding your child's temperament and personality characteristics, taking the time to train and teach her how to use self control, and negotiating solutions to problems. Time-out should not be used more than several times in a day. If you find you need to use it more, you need to spend more positive time with your child. If this doesn't help, then you need to investigate other possible causes for repeated behavioral problems and/or seek professional help. Generally speaking, time-out used properly is quite effective during those times when positive feedback is not enough to help your child stay on track.

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