When thinking about “time-outs,” it may be helpful to have some background on the theory behind them. The reason time-outs are so effective at modifying childhood behavior is that they briefly take away the most important thing in young children’s lives: attention. Children yearn for the attention of their parents and for physical touch. Your attention and touch are more valued than any bottle, pacifier, lovey, or toy.
At what age can time-out start?
Time-out can be started with children as young as 15 months, although it is more commonly started around age 2. Time-out can work into grade school years, but as your child gets older, a “token economy” and “job jar” may work better to reinforce good behavior and punish the bad.
But let’s get real. Many parents say, “time-out just doesn’t work.” If that’s the case for you, there could be several reasons why it’s not working well. Rest assured, time-outs do work, and you can successfully execute time-outs, but first, you have to prepare.
Preparing for time-outs
Before time-outs can work, children must have something called “time-in.” Time-in consists of the countless small physical reinforcements that you give to your child throughout the day to let them know that you approve of their behavior. For instance, when your child is quietly involved in independent play, walk over to your child and gently, briefly, touch their hair or shoulder. Don’t talk to them while you’re doing this. You want to physically reinforce the behavior, being mindful to not interrupt them. This is also called “catching them being good” and physically reinforces the appropriate behavior that you are happy with and want to continue.
How often should you provide these touches to your child during the day? A good rule of thumb is 50 times a day. That may sound like a lot, but it’s not. You only need to do this when they are safely engaging in behavior on their own, such as playing on the floor under supervision or in a Pack ‘n Play. When your child is involved in appropriate behavior that you want to continue, give them that time in by touching them briefly about every five minutes. You will still be able to engage in other important activities. All you need to do is break from what you are doing and give your child brief episodes of time-in every five minutes.
This is extremely important and works best when done for at least two to four weeks before you start time-outs. Why? Time out involves taking away that physical contact and attention that children crave and that you’ve established during time-in. Removing this physical contact from your child is then so impactful to them that it changes their behavior.
Note: Keep in mind positive praise, like time-in, is more effective at reinforcing a good behavior than taking something away is at discouraging a bad behavior. The more often you catch your child being good and praise them for doing so, the better. In other words, positive praise should be your primary approach to teaching good behavior. Time-outs should be your secondary option.
Pick a spot
When you’re ready to start implementing time-outs, you need to decide where you will place your child for a time-out.
If you decide to use a time-out chair, there are several recommendations to consider.
- A good time-out chair should be easily mobile to move from room to room. This is because when you put your child in time-out, part of the punishment is being able to see what he or she is missing out on.
- Your child’s feet should not be able to touch the ground. This helps eliminate “inching” off the chair.
- Some prefer a chair without arms. That way your child is not climbing all over the chair. They are more likely to sit still.
- A highchair is a good option that will not tip over and has straps and a tray to safely secure them in place. A highchair is also fairly easy to move from room to room.
Other objects work well for time-out too. Something like a Pack ‘n Play without any toys can be very useful, but a bit less mobile. If you put it in an open area, the child in time-out may be in a different room, but still be able to see what she is missing. Even if your child is old enough to climb out, they can quickly be placed back in the Pack ‘n Play.
Escaping the time out
If your child keeps getting out of the time-out area, you have two choices.
- Keep putting them back over and over again. This is labor-intensive, but will eventually work. They will eventually give up. Restart the timer each time they try to escape. More on that below!
- Give them three strikes, and then they are out. Count one, two, three, as you put them back in time out. If you get to three, they go to their room. Children like to go to their rooms even less than they like doing a time-out. That is why this strategy is very effective in getting your child to complete their time-out. This works even if their room is a wonderland of toys. Initially keep the door open. If they keep coming out, shut the door. Do not stand outside the door and hold it shut yourself. This is giving your child unnecessary attention. They also are unlikely to quiet down if they know that you are just on the other side of the door.
Give a warning
I think if a child is going to receive a time-out, they should get one warning. “If you touch the __________ again, I’m going to have to put you in a time-out.” This is not universally agreed upon, nor is it necessary for success, but I think that children should be warned of an impending consequence for a behavior that is unacceptable. Another useful warning method that has been around for years is the “1-2-3 Magic” method. There are many videos on YouTube that outline how to do this. It’s simple, effective, and gives the child a clear understanding of what will lead to a timeout.
Executing the time-out
When your child does the inappropriate behavior:
- Announce in a lower and louder voice than normal, “Time-out.”
- Physically place or lead your child to the designated time-out area.
- Place the child in the time-out chair. Do not try and explain or rationalize the time-out to them. If the child is older, you can do a debrief after the time-out.
- Your demeanor should suggest that this is not a game and that you mean business.
- If your child leaves the time-out area, quickly and quietly put them back in time-out. You may do this as often as necessary until your child gives in and stays in time-out. Or, you may choose to replace them in time out up to three times, and then they go to their room.
With older children, you can actually do practice runs of time-out before you actually use it for punishment. Think of it as “dress rehearsals.”
Timing the time-out
When placed in time-out, your child should stay in it for one minute for each year old they are, but never more than five minutes.
Consider using a timer. When the timer goes off, your child’s time-out is complete. If the child talks, yells, or cries before the time has elapsed, the time starts over again. You must be willing to be consistent with this, even when it is inconvenient to do so.
Also, don’t start timing until your child is quiet. Five minutes of screaming doesn’t make for a successful time-out. That could instead foster temper tantrums and your child could learn that screaming for five minutes will get them out of time-out.
When the time-out is complete, announce that your child is “all done.” With an older child, you may discuss the wrongdoing, but this is not necessary. You should welcome your child back into activity as if nothing had happened.
Repeating is OK
Once out of time out, if your child immediately repeats his “crime,” he goes right back into the time-out. If your child wants to spend the entire day in the time-out chair, that is their option. Just remember, consistency is key.
Make no mistake. You are the parent. You are in charge and part of your job as a parent is to set boundaries and consistently enforce those in your family. Time-outs are effective because they are a tangible consequence to a behavior the child knows is not appropriate. This teaches the child discipline and self-reflection about why they are in time-out. If it doesn’t go perfectly the first few times, do not get frustrated. Like anything in life, this will take some practice. Once the expectations and the routine are understood by the parents and the children, time-outs can be a great tool for reducing troublesome behaviors. Most importantly, make sure to praise the child when they are doing well to create a loving, supportive atmosphere for them to thrive in. If you have questions or need advice on how to execute time-outs better, talk to your child’s doctor. For more information about Prevea Pediatrics, click here.
Brad Paus, DO
Dr. Paus is a Pediatrician at the Prevea Howard Health Center. By creating a safe and fun atmosphere, he works together with families to come up with practical solutions. In addition to optimizing each child’s health, he wants to see his patients and their families succeed educationally, socially, and in their extracurricular activities. Learn more about Dr. Paus or schedule online with him. https://www.prevea.com/Providers/Bradley-Paus