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Time-out Guidelines for Parents

What is time-out?

Time-out is a way of disciplining your child for misbehavior without raising your hand or your voice. Time-out involves removing your child from the good stuff in life, for a small amount of time, immediately following misbehavior. Time-out for children is similar to penalties used for hockey players. When a hockey player has misbehaved on the ice, he is required to go to the penalty area for two minutes. The referee does not scream at, threaten, or hit the player. He merely blows the whistle and points to the penalty area. During the penalty time, the player is not allowed to play, only watch. Time-out bothers hockey players because they would rather play hockey than watch. Keep this hockey comparison in mind when using time-out for your child. Children usually do not like time-out because they would rather play than watch other kids play. So when you use time-out in response to a misbehavior, remove your child from whatever he or she is doing and have him or her sit down.

Where should the time-out area be located?

You do not have to use the same location each time. Just make sure the location is convenient for you. For example, using a downstairs chair is inconvenient when the problem behavior occurs upstairs. An adult-sized chair works best, but a step, footstool, bench, or couch will also work. Make sure the area is well-lit and free from all dangerous objects. Also make sure your child cannot watch TV or play with toys.

How long should time-out last?

The upper limit should be one quiet minute for every year your child has been alive. So if you have a 2-year-old, aim for two quiet minutes. Keep in mind, children do not like time-out, and they can be very public with their opinion. So it may take some time to get those two minutes. This is especially true in the beginning when children do not know the rules and still cannot believe you are doing this to them. For some reason, the calmer you remain, the more upset they are likely to become. This is all part of the process. Discipline works best when you administer it calmly.

So, do not begin the time until your child is calm and quiet. If your child is crying or throwing a tantrum, it does not count toward the required time. If you start the time because your child is quiet but he or she starts to cry or tantrum, wait until your child is quiet again and then start the time over. Do not let your child leave time-out unless he or she is calm; your child must remain seated and be quiet to get out of time-out. Some programs suggest using timers. Timers can be helpful but are not necessary. If you use one, remember the timer is to remind parents that time-out is over,  not children.

What counts as quiet time?

Generally, quiet time occurs when your child is not angry or upset, and is not yelling or crying. You must decide when your child is calm and quiet. Some children get perfectly still and quiet while in they’re in time-out. Other children find it hard to sit still and not talk. Fidgeting and “happy talk” should usually count as being calm and quiet. For example, if your son sings or talks softly to himself, that counts as quiet time. Some children do what we call “dieseling,” which is the quiet sniffling that usually follows a tantrum. Since a “dieseling” child is usually trying to stop crying but cannot find the off switch, this also should be counted as quiet time.

What if the child leaves the chair before time is up?

Say nothing! Calmly (and physically) return your child to the chair. For children who are 2 to 4 years old, unscheduled departures from the chair are a chronic problem early in the time-out process. Stay calm and keep returning the child to the chair. If you tire or become angry, invite your spouse (or any adult who is nearby) to assist you as a tag-team partner. If you are alone and become overly tired or angry, retreat with honor. But when help arrives or when your strength returns, set the stage for another time-out.

What if my child misbehaves in the chair?

Say nothing and ignore everything that is not dangerous to child, yourself, and the furniture. I repeat:  Say nothing! What do I mean by nothing? I mean not anything, the absence of something, the empty set, the amount of money you have when you have spent it all, the result of two minus two or what zero equals. I mean nothing. Most of your child’s behavior in the chair is an attempt to get you to react and say something, anything. So expect the unexpected, especially if you are a nagger, screamer, explainer, warner, reasoner, or just a talker. And I mean the unexpected. They may spit up, wet, blow their nose on their clothes (you may be tempted to say “Yecch” but... do not), strip, throw things, make unkind comments about your parenting skills, or simply say they do not love you anymore. Do not worry. They will love you again when their time is up, believe me.

When should I use time-out?

When you first start, use it for only one or two problem behaviors. After your child has learned to “do” time-out, you can expand the list of problem behaviors. In general, problem behaviors fall into three categories: 1) anything dangerous to self or others; 2) defiance and/or noncompliance; and 3) obnoxious or bothersome behavior. Use time-out for “1” and “2” and ignore anything in category “3.” If you cannot ignore something, move it into category “2” by issuing a command (e.g., “Take the goldfish out of the toilet.”). Then if the child does not comply, you can use time-out for noncompliance. Be sure to use time-out as  consistently as possible. For example, try to place your child in time-out each time a targeted behavior occurs. I realize you cannot be 100 percent consistent because it is in our nature to adapt. But be as consistent as you can.

In general, immediately following a problem behavior, tell your child what he or she did and take him or her to time-out. (With older children, send them to time-out.) For example, you might say, “No hitting. Go to timeout.” Say this calmly and only once. Do not reason or give long explanations to your child. If your child does not go willingly, take him or her to time-out, using as little force as needed. For example, hold your daughter gently by the hand or wrist and walk to the time-out area. Or, carry her facing away from you (so that she does not confuse a hug and a trip to time-out). As I suggested earlier, avoid giving your child a lot of attention while he or she is being put in time-out. Do not argue with, threaten, or spank your child. And what should you say? Hint: Starts with “No”’ and ends with “thing.” Answer:  Say nothing!

What do I do when time is up?

When the time-out period is over, ask your child, “Are you ready to get up?” Your child must answer yes in some way (or nod yes) before you give permission for him or her to get up. Do not talk about why the child went into time-out, how the child behaved while in time-out, or how you want your child to behave in the future. In other words, do not nag. If your child says “No,” answers in an angry tone of voice, or will not answer all, start time-out over again. If your child chooses to stay in the chair, fine. It is hard to cause real trouble in time-out.

What do I do when my child leaves the chair?

If you placed your child in time-out for not doing what you told him or her to do, repeat the instruction. This will help teach your child you mean business. It also gives your child a chance to behave in a way that is good for business. If he or she still does not obey the instruction, then place him or her in time-out again. In addition, add in a few other easy-to-follow, one-step commands. If he or she does them, praise the performance. If not, back to time-out. Generally, use this opportunity to train your child to follow your instructions when those instructions are delivered in a normal tone of voice without being repeated.

The general rule for ending time-out is to  praise a good behavior. Once time-out is over, reward your child for the kinds of behaviors you want him or her to use.  Catch them being good.

Should I explain the rules of time-out to my child?

Before using time-out, you should explain the rules to your child once. At a time when your child is not misbehaving, explain what time-out is (simply), which problem behaviors time-out will be used for, and how long time-out will last. Practice using time-out with your child before using the procedure. While practicing, remind your child you are “pretending” this time. They will still go “ballistic” when you do your first real time-outs, but you will be reassured that you have done your part to explain the fine print.


Helpline Support

Nebraska Family Helpline: The Helpline is a free resource for parents who have concerns and questions about their child's behavior. Call 888-866-8660. Bilingual counselors are available.

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