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Using Time Outs Properly and Effectively

By Andy Eig, PhD. Clinical Psychologist


When it comes to their toddlers and preschoolers, parents ask me more questions about time outs than any other issue. Parents often get confused as to when to try them and how to implement them. I have seen them used very effectively. But, more times than not, I have seen them misused. Let us see if we can clarify how to employ this powerful parenting tool.


Time Outs: What are they?
Let us start with what they are not — punishments.  A time out is intended to remove the child from a disruptive way of behaving so that the child can calm him or herself and reflect upon what he or she has done. Time outs are not intended to be harsh or noxious in any way. For example, 4-year-old Theo is pushing his friends at the playground. The other children have repeatedly told him to stop and so have the adult caretakers. Theo’s mom then steps in and gives Theo a time out for pushing and not listening. Theo and his mom go to a playground bench away from the action, and Theo sits and collects himself. When Theo and his mom decide that he is ready, he returns to his friends and apologizes to them for pushing. Theo’s mom has been calm but assertive. She does say that Theo is “bad” or that he is punished. She merely says that Theo is in time out until he is ready to listen and stop pushing. She may even ask Theo to use his words rather than to push.


Time Outs: Who are they for?
In my opinion, time outs are for any kid that can understand what a time out is. An 18 month old child is too young for a time out. They view it as abandonment not a time where they can collect themselves. Time outs apply mainly to children who are three and older. Some children are more assertive and defiant and may need time-outs (many of them) to help contain them. Other kids are more mellow and cooperative and do not require disciplining in this manner at all. The fact that a child requires frequent time outs or none at all does not make them or their parents deficient in any way, it is often simply a reflection of a child’s personality. Each child may need certain types of parenting at different times in their lives.


Time Outs: How to give them
For most pre-schoolers, a warning that if they do not stop a behavior, they will be in time out is best. Once the warning is given and the child fails to respond, then a time out should be given. Backing down or not following through just confuses the child. Here are some tips for giving time outs…


  1. Take the child to a quiet part of the room.
  2. Tell them they are in time out and stay with them.
  3. Kids at a pre-school age need to see a caregiver or parent while they are in time out. Having them go to their room alone can be too anxiety provoking for someone this age.
  4. The time out should end when the child is calm and acknowledges that he or she is ready to go back and play.
  5. When the time out is over, remind your son or daughter why they were given a time out and tell them that you love them and have them go back to their activity.

Time Outs: Prevention
As I mentioned before, some kids just need the structure of time outs and they will get many of them during the day until they can monitor themselves better. Although some children will require somewhat frequent time outs, most do not. If you find yourself doling them out left and right and you are more of a referee than a parent, it is time to re-evaluate your parenting game plan. Make sure your children are well fed, rested, and have a structured schedule that keeps them interested and engaged in the world around them. Bored, tired, and hungry children are a recipe for a time out disaster.

Perhaps the best way to prevent time-outs is to use a reward system of sorts. Motivate your child with positive rewards rather than with time outs. For instance, if your daughter always screams and cries when she goes to the market with you, remind before and during the trip that if she behaves she gets something special (stickers, a favorite dinner, or a healthy treat). Look for my next article, which will go into the use of positive rewards in more detail.


If you liked this article, you may also want to read our other developmental articles:


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