Time Out

Dad with boy in time-outChildren can understand and comply with time-out beginning sometime around age two years old.If you’re wondering when and why to use time-out with your child, imagine those frustrating moments in your own life when you just need a moment away to calm down and regroup. That’s exactly how time-out can best be used with children, although it is often thought of as a punishment.

A good example of when time-out would be appropriate for a young child is if she hits her friend during a squabble over a toy. She may have wanted the toy and hit her friend to get it, or perhaps the friend took the toy from her and she retaliated by hitting her friend. Either way, she was unable to solve the problem in a socially appropriate way (use her words, ask for help, etc.) and her emotions got the best of her. While it’s normal to get frustrated, it’s not okay to hit somebody. In this situation, it would be helpful for the parent to intervene quickly by telling her in a calm but firm Girl in time outvoice “No hitting. Go to time out.” The goal is not so much to “punish” her, but rather to help her learn how to handle her own strong emotions and work out problems appropriately. As we all know, constructive problem-solving doesn’t usually happen when our blood is boiling – we need to take a moment to calm down first!

A time-out should last about one minute for every year old your child is. After a 3-minute time-out, the 3-year-old can return to resolve the problem in a more appropriate way. This should happen with the support and close supervision of an adult who can help her use words and work out the issue. [More about Encouraging Positive Behavior] If she is not calm and following your directions, tell her that she needs to listen to Mommy or go back to time out. It’s important to follow through with this. If she refuses to do whatever it is you are asking her to do (e.g. apologize), then put her back in time-out for a minute or two and try again.

Dealing with non-compliance (i.e. not listening) is a VERY worthwhile use for time-out. We want our young children to listen to us so we can keep them safe and teach them how to behave and get along with others in life. We hope that what we teach them when they are little, combined with our own example, will sink in and influence the type of person they will grow to be. Teaching your child to listen to you when he or she is little will help you negotiate many years of parenting ahead!

Mom giving time out signalTo avoid being overly controlling and to teach your child about the natural consequences of their actions, it is helpful to give them choices when you are disciplining them. If your child is being uncooperative and will not listen or follow directions, you can give them the choice to either follow directions (e.g. stop playing and come get your pajamas on) or go to time out. Start counting, and if they have not followed directions by the time you get to three, then send them to time out. [More about 123 Listen to Me]

Although time-out should not be viewed as a punishment, your child does need to comply with the time-out on your terms. Here are some ‘Golden Rules’ of time out:

1. Your child should remain in time-out for the designated time and may only leave time-out when she is told she can leave.

2. You set the expectations for her behavior in time-out (e.g. sit quietly), and it is up to you to enforce those expectations.

3. Have as little conversation and interaction with your child as possible while she is in time-out. A handy phrase is “We’ll talk about it after your time-out is over.” Use it once, then stick to “You need to sit quietly or the time will start over.”

4. It is essential to follow through with the time out. Keep an eye on the time, make sure they are sitting quietly, and tell them when they may leave time-out.

Be prepared to deal with your child’s attempts to challenge your authority and misbehave while in time-out. This is especially likely to happen in the beginning when your child is first becoming familiar with time-out. One of the best ways to deal with misbehavior (e.g. leaving the time-out area or being loud while in time-out) is to tell your child what the expectation is (sit quietly on the step), and let them know that if they don’t sit quietly on the step, then the time will have to start over. A kitchen timer is extremely helpful for time-out because it not only helps you keep track of the time that goes by, but it also signifies to your child when they have completed the required time. If you have to re-set the timer because your child is not following directions in time-out, it’s nice to have the timer there to physically re-set. This makes it much more concrete and easy to understand for a young child.

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