“Time out” means taking a specific time away from attention, interesting activities, rewards or other reinforcement. It usually means placing the child in a dull, boring place immediately following an undesired behavior, and having them remain there for a specific amount of time. Time out can also involve a temporary loss of parental attention or interaction in situations where the physical space is limited (like no talking for 5 minutes while riding in a car).

It is often said that the length of a time out should be one minute for each year of age, but adjustments need to made based on developmental level – for instance a developmentally delayed child should have their time out significantly reduced.

Time outs are simple in concept, but can be hard to implement. Here are some tips for greater success:

  1. Set limits that are consistent – if a given child behavior requires a time out one day, it should always get that response. Inconsistency leads to more testing of the limits.
  2. Focus on changing only one or two types of misbehavior at a time. For instance, if hitting a sibling is the main concern, focus your efforts on consistent time outs for that behavior and try to let other things slide for a while until you have results.
  3. When you announce the time out, do not continue to engage verbally with the child. This is very important – children that continue to verbally engage with you, bargain, plead, and yell back and forth with you will not receive the benefit from a time out because they are in essence receiving MORE attention from you during a time out rather than less. You can’t control what their mouth does, but you can control your own. Remain calm, and refuse to take the bait.
  4. Time outs should occur immediately after misbehavior. A time out many minutes later sends a confused message. Delaying a time out by lecturing the child before the time out also hurts the process. The action of being quietly brought to a time out location and having no verbal interaction from you speaks far more loudly than any works can.
  5. If giving a warning before use of time out, make it count. For instance saying “ one more time and you will get a time out” needs to be followed up by actually bringing the child calmly to time out if they do “it” one more time.
  6. Remember that kids enjoy making a splash. Like throwing rocks in the water, triggering a parent to lose theor cool can be interesting or satisfying for a child. Keeping your cool when setting limits keep from inadvertently reinforcing their behavior to occur again.
  7. You determine when the time out is over, not the child. Setting a timer can make this seem less arbitrary to the child. Don’t engage your child in a special wat immediately after time out (e.g. lecturing, exchanging affection, and having your child apologize to you). Simply “resume business as usual”, but actively look for the next positive behavior to praise.