How to Introduce Time Outs for Children Effectively
Time outs for children can be an effective technique for putting an immediate end to potentially harmful behavior – but it only works if you understand what time out is, what behavior it can address, and when and how to introduce it properly.
Fast facts about time outs for children
What it is: Time out is a way to immediately de-escalate a dangerous or harmful situation for children ages 2 through 5.
It only works if: You introduce and explain the concept when your child isn’t behaving badly. That way they know what to expect. Also, you, the parent (or any other caregiver) have to be cool, calm and consistent. No losing your temper in the heat of the moment, and no responding differently to the same behaviour at different times.
Time outs for toddlers only work if you’ve introduced the technique properly — you can’t suddenly send your child to sit in a corner and expect them to ‘get it.’ Here’s how you use time outs for children effectively.
How to give a time out
Step 1: Preparing yourself
Time out means removing your child from a dangerous or harmful situation, to sit in a boring location alone. Before enacting it, you need to plan it out – this will allow you to be prompt and consistent in implementing it, which is critical to using time outs for children effectively. Decide:
Where will you remove your child to? Ideally, it will be the same, boring, unstimulating location each time. A child’s bedroom does not make a good time out location, because it often contains distractions. At the same time, time out is not effective as a punitive measure, so don’t purposely choose a dark or confined space that could scare the child. The point is that time out should be boring, not physically uncomfortable.
What behaviours will trigger time outs? Time out only works as a very specific response to very specific actions. Each family needs to decide what specific behaviors qualify as time out triggers (e.g., poking, punching, kicking, hitting).
Step 2: Preparing your kid
The concept of time out should never be introduced for the first time in the heat of the moment. Choose a neutral moment, when your child engaged and the lines of communication are open, to explain the concept of a time out, and what specific behaviours would trigger it. It’s important to delineate specific behaviorsspecific behaviors that will result in time out, and avoid vague words like “naughty” or “bad,” that are entirely subjective, and frankly, won’t mean much to a toddler. Also, be very clear about what the time out rules are. Show your kid the time out location and time out chair; explain which behaviors will result in time out, whether there will be a warning, how long he will have to sit there, and that he can only come out of the time out when you say so.
Say: “Do you remember when you kicked your brother? Kicking people hurts them, and we don’t hurt people. So, the next time you kick someone, you’ll have to go sit in the time out chair until mommy/daddy/caregiver says you can get up.”
Step 3: Giving the time out
As soon as the problem behaviour occurs, put time out into motion. You have to completely detach emotionally from the situation – don’t lose your cool or berate; that only shows your child their bad behaviour will get your attention. Instead, get down to your child’s eye level and make eye contact – this makes what you have to say communicative, rather than aggressive and threatening – while you identify the problem behaviour. (Some families may prefer to give a warning once before they give a time out; the important thing is to be consistent whatever you choose to do.)
Say: “You just kicked your brother. You know we don’t kick, so now you’re going to time out.”
Then, remove your child to the time out location. Leave the child alone there (though remain close enough to supervise) for roughly one minute per year of age. And ignore them – don’t respond to any wailing or crying or screaming.
If the child gets up, calmly lead them back to the chair. If they refuse to go, gently pick them up and put them back without losing your cool or engaging with them. Once the child is actually settled, resume counting the amount of time left in the time out. The important thing is not to engage or escalate the situation by arguing about the child getting up. If you react or engage, it will only encourage him to try testing those boundaries further. If he gets no response at all, he’ll soon give up and just ride out the time out.
Step 4: Ending the time out
When the time out is over, don’t lecture or scold or make a big deal of it. Get down to eye level and tell your child time out is over and it’s time to go back to playing. Some families may choose to have the child apologize for their actions; this is an individual preference. But once it’s over, let it go; your child has finished the time out, it’s time for both of you to move on.
Step 5: Manage your expectations of next time
Time outs aren’t an effective tool for long-term behaviour change, because behaviour change only occurs through positive reinforcement. So, don’t use time outs for toddlers with the expectation that they’ll teach your child how to behave better. For that, you’ll need to praise the good behaviour you’ll want to see more of. Learn how to use those tools effectively here!