Time-outs are a behavioral modification tool that parents have used (with varying degrees of success) over the years. The purpose of time-outs is to stop unwanted behaviors in their tracks (by temporarily separating the child from the environment where the negative behavior occurred).

Time-outs were all the rage a decade ago, but they’re beginning to lose their luster in certain circles. Critics of time-outs feel like they ostracize a child at a time when he/she needs connection and help regulating his/her emotions. They also believe that kids don’t spend their time-out reflecting on what they did wrong and instead sit in the time-out chair feeling ashamed, confused, and angry (at the person who put them in the time-out chair).

Proponents of time-outs believe they work because they can be used anywhere and because they give kids (and their parents) the space and time to cool down.

If You’re a Fan of Time-Outs, Here’s the Classic Way to Do Them:

  • If your kiddo does something naughty, put him/her in a time-out chair away from the group or the activity. Then have him/her sit there until the timer goes off.
  • The length of the time-out is typically 1 minute per year of age. For example, a 2-year-old would be expected to sit in time-out for 2 minutes (and a 3-year-old for 3 minutes, etc.).
  • Experts typically recommend that parents wait until their kids are 18-months to 24-months of age before they introduce the concept of time-outs. Some even encourage parents to delay time-outs until their kids are 3 years of age.

PediaTip: Don’t overuse the time-out or it will lose its power. It should be reserved for major infractions, not small mistakes.

A Common Question About Time-Outs

What if My Child Refuses to Sit in the Time-Out Chair? 

It’s not uncommon for parents to feel like they have to wrestle their child into the time-out chair. Here are a few ways to avoid this stressful (and not super productive) situation:

  • If your child refuses to do the time-out, make the time-out longer (i.e. double the time). This will hopefully incentivize your child to do the time-out on the first try.
  • Allow your child to stand in a time-out corner (vs. sit in a time-out chair or on a time-out step).
  • Don’t make the time-out location your child’s room.

    Why? Because you don’t want your little one to develop a negative association with his/her sleep space.

A Time-Out Alternative: Take a “Break” Instead

I prefer to think in “breaks” (or “resets”) rather than in “time-outs. This idea comes from Joe Newman’s fab book “Raising Lions.”

Although time-outs and breaks both create a pause in activity, they differ in their approach and tone.

Time-outs are usually punitive, isolating, and reactionary (i.e. the parent gets annoyed and says “you’re in time-out”), whereas breaks come from a non-judgmental place and are done with intention (and without a lot of emotion).

The goal of “breaks” is not to punish kids, but to give them the time and space to “reset” their (negative) energy and to learn from their mistakes (without their parents lecturing them about them). Breaks also give parents the chance to reset their own energy (which may be of the “pissed off” variety).

Breaks Typically Last About 1-Minute and Can Be Done Anywhere. Here are the Steps (Modified Slightly From Raising Lions):

1. If your child misbehaves (e.g. refuses to get in his/her car seat), give him/her 5-seconds to do the right thing. You can do a 5-second countdown out loud or just count to yourself.

2. If your child continues to do the unwanted behavior, then say “ok, take a break.”

  • Your tone of voice is crucial here. Let it be light, matter-of-fact, and non-judgmental. Finding the right tone takes practice, since we usually default to an exasperated or stern tone in the face of annoying behavior.
  • Breaks are meant to be quiet, with no talking.
  • If your child is whining or crying, wait patiently for him/her to stop before the break officially begins.  This will let him/her know that fussing just prolongs the break.
  • Your child can take the break where he/she is. There’s no shame corner in this case.

3. If your child refuses to take a break, then make the break time longer (e.g. 2 minutes).

4. Once the break is over, resist the temptation to lecture your child. Chances are your child inherently knows what he/she did wrong. If your kiddo seems clueless, you can offer a word or two as a hint (such as “biting” or “first-try listening”). Belaboring the point, however, will distract your child from learning from the mistake and will cause him/her to direct his/her frustration at YOU.

If you want to see an example of the “break” technique in action, check out this link (on Joe Newman’s website).

The Bottom Line

Helping children build skills such as impulse control and sustained focus requires time and patience. Try to have empathy and a sense of humor as you guide your son or daughter through the ups & downs of life. And don’t forget about the long-term goal: to arm your child with useful tools so that he/she can grow up to be an independent and emotionally aware, problem-solving adult.