Taking Control with Time-Out

Time-outs are breaks used in response to a child’s problem behavior. They enable parents to discipline children without yelling or physical punishment and give young children a chance to separate and calm down.

Time-outs are a discipline method best used for big problems, such as hitting, kicking, and out-of-control screaming — or when other methods are not working effectively.

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How to Give a Time-Out

It’s important for you to model self-control for your child when giving a time-out. Speak calmly but firmly, without yelling. Take deep breaths and ground yourself to model the behavior you expect in your child. Then:

  • Take your child to a quiet place to sit down. Quietly guide your child to a neutral place where there are no distractions, and you can keep an eye on them. Try to use the same place each time. You might have them sit on a chair in the hallway or on the last step of a staircase.
  • Keep your child in time-out for approximately one minute per year of age. If your child is 4 years old, they would sit in time-out for four minutes. This method works best for children between 3 and 10 years old. Use a timer to keep track of the minutes, or just keep an eye on the clock.
  • Tell your child, “Time-out begins when you are quiet. You need to stay here until you are calm.” Don’t argue or yell. It’s OK to sit with them if that helps them to calm their body and regain control.
  • Withdraw your attention. Ensure no attention is being paid to your child while they are in time-out. Ignore any tantrums or crying. There should be no talking or interaction during time-out. If there is, start the time-out timer over again.
  • When the time is up, let your child go back to what they were doing. If they had hurt someone before the time-out, explain the need for staying safe with others and themselves. You may encourage them to apologize. There is no need to lecture your child at this point. This can be a good time to reengage in play or reconnect with your child to demonstrate that your relationship remains intact and positive ever after a time-out is needed.
  • After time-out, praise your child for regaining control. If they behave well afterward, praise them for playing nicely. Be specific with your praise. For example, “I like how you are using calm hands while playing with your sister,” or “I’m proud of you for continuing this puzzle even when it was tough.” Positive reinforcement will help them learn proper behavior.
  • If your child misbehaves in public, use time-out just as you would at home. Find a quiet, out-of-the-way spot to seat your child. Stay nearby to keep an eye on them, and remember to maintain your composure.

Remember: Time-out also can be useful for parents who need to calm down! It is important to step back from a heated situation to take a deep breath before responding.

Through time-out, children can gain self-control. Separating your child from a difficult situation stops the undesired behavior, and it gives you an opportunity to calm down and redirect your child. Afterwards, you will be more prepared to return to the situation at hand.

When Should You Implement A Time-Out?

It is important to distinguish which behaviors require a time-out and which should be solved with distraction, redirection, or other methods. Time-outs should be used when the child cannot be redirected or could harm themselves or others.

Here are some examples of when a time-out might be used:

Your child hits someone.

Calmly tell your child that hitting is unacceptable and explain that they will have a time-out. You might say, “You hit Henry, and that’s not allowed. Hitting hurts. You need a time-out to calm down and control your body.”

Your child acts dangerously or recklessly.

For example, if your child touches something sharp or hot or runs in a parking lot.

Your child does not listen to your repeated warnings.

If your child refuses to follow your instructions after being asked multiple times.

Your child disobeys house rules.

If your child does not understand the importance of your rules for your family, especially if it regards safety.

Time-Outs as Punishment

It is important to keep in mind that a time-out should be used as a way to help children regain self-control, not as a punishment. Time-out helps children learn from their misbehavior.

Also, remember to only use time-outs sparingly: They will lose their impact if overused.

Time-out tips

Here are some tips to ensure successful time-outs and encourage more constructive behavior:

  • Give the time-out immediately after the misbehavior so your child understands that their misbehavior is what led to the timeout.
  • Follow through on the time-out if you use it as a final warning. Idle threats often lead to continued misbehavior.
  • Give a time out for one misbehavior at a time to ensure your child understands why they received the time-out.
  • Make sure to discuss behavior expectations and house rules with your child outside of times when a behavior is occurring. Make sure your child knows what is expected of them, as we do not want to punish them or a command or expectation they don’t understand.

If these strategies do not appear to be helping manage behaviors, and you need additional support, speak with your pediatrician or a behavioral health professional who can help you access appropriate services to help your child and family.

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.