Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Time Out Rules

Bench picture source: many online retailers
My last blog on Toddler Rules begs for a blog on Time Out Rules.  I have seen Time Out work effectively, but it fails often because of inconsistent use, interactions with the child during Time Out, and sometimes simply the personality of the child.

Learn the procedures below, teach the procedures to all caregivers, and practice with your child before beginning to enforce time outs.  Any form of discipline works best when all caregivers are consistent.

Children need to know what to expect, so practicing is important. Review sessions might be needed if the child has trouble staying in time out. All practices should be at a time when the child is being good! Remember that the practice is for the parents too!  Siblings who are old enough need to know to ignore children in time out-- practice with them too.

Expect that behavior will worsen before it gets better. (Sorry, no one said parenting was easy...)  Plan on getting to work late.  Attempt to start bedtime routines a little early, because Time Outs will extend the total time. When children know that parents are trying to affect their behavior, they may resist and act out even more. After a time they learn that parents are winning and they (often abruptly) begin to behave. If parents don't continue to discipline, the undesired behaviors resurface, so you must persist on Time Outs for bad behaviors when they do occur.  They catch you by surprise after the child is usually good, but you can't ignore bad behaviors or the child learns they can get away with them!

Time Out works best when certain "rules" are followed. There are rules for the child as well as the adult!

Rules for child
  • The child must stay in time out until the timer goes off. 
  • If the child leaves early, the timer will be re-set. 
  • If the child cries or tries to get attention, the timer will be re-set. This will happen as many times as needed until time out is complete. 
  • In general, 1 minute per year of age is a good amount of time.

Rules for adult: 

  • Remain calm.  It's hard, but don't yell or raise your voice.
  • Be specific about why the child has a time out.
  • Limit physical contact and limit eye contact.  (This is Time Out from human contact!) 
  • Except when giving the time out, don't talk about the event.
  • Be consistent with all behaviors and situations. (Give a time out even when you're late for work - it will pay back in the end!)
Things to do before and during Time Outs:

  • Discuss desired behaviors and behaviors that will earn a time out (hitting, yelling, etc.) during your "practice" sessions.
  • Resist any contact with the child in time out (no talking to child, avoid looking at child - other than discretely to be sure he/she is in time out).  Be covert to be sure the child is staying put safely.
  • You should continue to do what you were doing before: Talking with others in room, dishes, etc.
  • Quietly remind others that the child is in time out and cannot play/talk.
  • Set the stage for success: Be sure kids get enough sleep, eat on schedule, and have supervision.  
  • Praise good behaviors!

Things to remember after a Time Out:

The problem of over-discussing a behavior is a common mistake.  It is natural that a parent wants to be sure the child understands, but excessive talking tends to make kids more angry.  
  • After time out is complete, the crime has been punished. 
  • Leave it. 
  • Do not re-live the past. 
  • Do not keep "reminding" the child what he/she did wrong. 
  • Kids will learn best if they are left to think about issues on their own. 
  • The consequence already happened, you do not need to explain it to your child. 
  • Trust that your child is smart enough to "get it". 
  • It may take reinforcement (another Time Out) with the next behavior, but do not harp or nag about the behaviors. 
  • If I keep making my point with another bullet point, do you start to ignore me? That is what tends to happen when things are overdone.  Just drop it.  

Where and How to do Time Out?
The location of Time Out can vary depending on where the behavior occurred, but do not put the child where he/she can see television or do anything fun.  Put your child where he can be covertly monitored for safety.  It can be as simple as moving the chair away from the dinner table.  The child can see the rest of the family enjoying dinner, but is completely ignored. This is very hard for the child, but very effective. When Time Out is complete, the child can re-join the dinner as if nothing happened, but will remember the isolation of Time Out. It works well if they can see the fun going on but can't participate. Isolating to a bedroom loses some of this benefit, because they can't see others having fun.

When placing child in time out, use brief directions, such as "Time Out for yelling". Be sure to state why the time out is happening, but keep it simple. The more you explain, the less effective it becomes.

After you tell the child to go to Time Out, direct where you want her to go. If the child refuses after 30 seconds, put the child there. Be quiet during the 30 seconds, don't yell, don't give the instructions again. (Yelling shows the child you are losing control-- don't go there!)

At the beginning, you may have to physically place your child in Time Out. You can pick her up from the back (not too much physical contact ... no "hugs"). This may happen several times in one event if the child keeps running away.  Don't set the timer until he/she sits quietly. You also can help her get to Time Out with hand-holding or gently guiding from the back. Once children are pros at Time Out just naming the place and telling them "Time Out for hitting, sit on that chair" is sufficient.

Put your Time Out clock in view of the child, but out of reach. Practice with 10-15 seconds. For real Time Out, use one minute per year age.

Re-set the timer each time your child cries, gets up or tries to stop the timer early. Do not look at or talk to your child at this time.

After time out, simply say, "you are out of Time Out" and continue your activities. DO NOT continue to scold. DO NOT give a hug or congratulate on finishing Time Out.

DO give POSITIVE feedback often! When a child does a good thing or makes a good decision, be sure to smile, hug, say "good job" or "way to go". Kids love to get noticed and love attention. Give it for good behavior and the child is rewarded and will strive for those rewards again!

Always remember:  Behavior worsens when children (and adults) are tired, sick, hungry, or out of normal routines. Try to ensure regular routines, adequate sleep, healthy meals, and let children know if their routine will be different in advance. But don't use these as excuses for bad behavior! Schools, law enforcement, friends, etc. don't care if you "were just tired" and couldn't help yourself.

In a nutshell:  Patience is most important when re-directing behaviors. Yelling only fuels the fire and invites kids to yell back. Too much talking also backfires.  After the Time Out, resume normal activities. Be consistent with giving time out for all the bad behaviors you are trying to change, or the child will feel like he's getting away with it sometimes and will push the limits as much as possible.  Remember to be consistent with all providers, all behaviors and in all situations. Don't make excuses for the child (he's hungry/tired, it's the other kid's fault). If you give in once, the child will try for more leeway!


  1. What age is appropriate to start time out? We have a young toddler and do struggle with certain behaviors. Some have suggested timeout to us, but I don't feel confident he would understand it as a consequence. I have also never seen him sit anywhere for more than a couple seconds without being either strapped in or held. Does that mean he's not ready? How do you know your child is old enough to understand the concept of timeout?

    1. Meghan: Good question! You are correct that if he is too young to understand, Time Out will not be effective. Toddlers develop at different ages, but around age 2 years is when most kids can understand the concept. They need to be able to follow short directions or commands. If he doesn't understand simple commands (such as "bring me your shoes") he will have a hard time understanding "sit in time out". When he starts to get the idea of short commands, you can start with practicing when he is happy and not in trouble. When he seems to get the concept during practice sessions you can start using it for discipline. Before that, re-direction works well!