Parenting Tip of the Month: The New Time Out: When and How to Use Time Outs Effectively

by | Oct 1, 2016

Why are they helpful?

Time outs are a really useful tool that can used with children of all ages. In my experience, it is best that time outs are not used as a punishment, but rather an opportunity for your child to learn to manage their emotions, calm themselves down, and modify their behavior.

Time outs are most effective when used to address behaviors such as:

Disobeying rules or instructions
Doing something dangerous
Threatening others
Hostile arguing

Tips for Implementing Time Outs

As mentioned above, time outs are most helpful when they are used to help defuse and redirect an escalating situation as well as to help your child regain control of themselves. Below are several helpful tips to keep in mind to ensure that they are used effectively.

  1. Use time outs immediately and consistently. A child learns best when rules are implemented in an immediate and expected way. “Giving in” or waiting too long before employing the time out only leads to problems down the road.
  2.  Be calm, direct, and firm. Trying to over-explain or getting into a debate with your child only causes the situation to escalate. Children are great debaters! Instead, inform them briefly of the reason for the time out, that the time out will be over when they are calm and respectful and then step back to allow them to regain some self control.
  3. End the time out when your child is calm. A prescribed time for a time out can present challenges and often feels more like a punishment. Because the goal of a time out is to help deescalate and help your child learn to cool off, time outs should end when your child is calm and in control. As your child gets older, it is a great idea to help them learn to communicate to you when they feel calm. This allows them to become more self aware and take responsibility for their behaviors and emotion regulation.
  4. Give praise and positive reinforcement. Praise your child verbally and with a hug when they are able to calm down. Then, take a moment to help them reflect on why a time out was used and how they were able to cool down.
  5. Take a time-in with your child when they are too young to cognitively understand cause and effect. When you notice your child starting to lose control, calmly suggest that you both take a quiet moment together to calm down. When they are a bit older (between 2 and 3), you can start using more formal time outs. But, make sure to explain this new process to them before you need to use it so that they know what to expect.
  6. Be flexible. At home you may have a special place where they can go to cool down. Creating a calm down corner filled with quiet time activities can be a great spot for time outs to take place. However, sometimes it can be more problematic to try and get your child to transition to that location and/or sometimes you are away from the house. In these cases, either find an alternative place or just have them sit still where they are.
  7. Adjust for older children. Time outs are not just for young children. In fact, time outs are equally important for older children like teenagers. Instead of engaging in a battle of wills with your child, suggest that they take some time to cool off and resume the conversation only when they can engage calmly and respectfully. If your teen is unable to disengage, remove yourself from the situation. Again, arguing with them to take a time out only escalates things and removing yourself models good emotion regulation skills.

Potential Pitfalls:

Problem: My child argues and talks back.

Try: Ignore. Do not engage in a discussion or power struggle. If the arguing escalates, simply remain calm and remind them that the time out will be over when they are calm and respectful.

Problem: My child tantrums and makes a mess when they are in time out.

Try: Institute the time out anyway. Making a mess is your child’s way of escalating the behavior in order to get you to give in. Children are really smart. If they think that making things worse will get you to cave in, they are more than willing to try it. Again, remind them that you need them to calm down. Once they are calm and you have processed the situation, instruct your child to clean up their mess. No enjoyable activities should resume until the mess is cleaned.

Problem: My child does not believe I will follow through on a time out.

Try: Never give a time out (or any consequence) unless you are willing to follow through. Over time and with consistency your child will learn that you mean what you say and will rebel less.

Problem: Other people in the house are not helping.

Try: Talk with your family about the importance of time outs and how they can be helpful. Remind them that using time outs can be beneficial for everyone and that things will only get worse if everyone doesn’t work together.


*Don’t Forget!

Time outs are not only for children. Sometimes as parents we need time outs from our children, and our spouses. If you feel that your emotions are high and you are not able to handle yourself in a calm and productive way, tell your family member that you need to take a time out and calm down. Not only will this prevent escalation, but it is a great way to model a healthy coping skill for your children.

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