How and When to Use a Time Out
Dr. B is back! I told you she would be. Oh yee, of little faith.

If you are new to Mommy Shorts, Dr. B has a PhD in school psychology and also happens to be my sister, which is why I get her brilliant advice for free.

She used to have a regular weekly gig around here but gave it up due to experiencing “negative feelings” whenever I called to remind her of her free blogging duties.


Today, she is giving us a lesson in how to correctly implement a TIME-OUT. She’s actually got some pretty interesting view points on the subject— apparently, as popular as it is, time-out should not be the be-all and end-all of disciplining your child.

She also addressed the issue of dealing with a kid (like Mazzy) who has a tough time sitting still.

She says that if a child will not sit still for a time-out, perhaps nobody has ever properly explained a time-out or demonstrated it for them.

Huh. She might be right about that…


Time-out is a widely accepted form of discipline that can help reduce challenging behavior in young children; however, it is often misunderstood and implemented incorrectly.

Time-out is short for “time-out from positive reinforcement” and is based on a behavioral principle called extinction. It is used to decrease an unwanted behavior. It works by removing a child from a situation where the child’s misbehavior was being rewarded.

For example, if a child hits his sibling for taking his toy and gets the toy back as a result, then the hitting is being positively reinforced (rewarded). By placing a child in time-out after hitting, the child does not get the toy and the behavior no longer works to get the desired item. If the pay-off is removed, the child will no longer engage in the behavior. This is why the behavior often gets worse before it gets better. The child is hoping that by upping the ante, the parent (or child) will eventually give-in with the desired reward.

Time-out is not the same as punishment. Time-out involves the removal of reinforcement, whereas punishment involves presentation of aversive stimuli. Most people are surprised to learn that time-out is not intended to be a punishment.

Below are 13 components that should be considered when using time-out:

1. Teach time-out before using it. Time-out works best when children understand the rules and consequences for breaking them in advance. An explanation for a preschooler might be, “It is really important that everyone in our family is safe and gets along well with each other. If you follow the rules and listen, we can play together and have fun. If you don’t play safely, you will sit in the chair until I say you can get up. You need to stay quiet or you will sit there longer. When I tell you to get up, you can go back to playing and having fun but you still have to listen and play safely.” To make time-outs even easier to understand when you first introduce them to your child, it is best to choose one behavior (such as hitting) to use with time-out exclusively. Use role plays with stuffed animals or action figures to help your child learn and practice what to expect when going to time-out in a non-threatening way. If you think explaining a time-out is too advanced for your child, than time-out is most likely not yet developmentally appropriate for them.

2. Pick a place in advance. A chair is most commonly used but if your child refuses to sit still, consider creating a back-up place such as cozy area with soft pillows or a room with no toys. Make sure it’s childproof and stay in close proximity to make sure they stay safe.

3. Use brief explanations and a calm tone: When your child misbehaves, stay calm and briefly state, “I will not let you [hit your brother]. Sit here until you calm down [Or, I tell you to get up].” When time-out ends and your child is calm, talk about the problem and your safety concerns, state your behavioral expectations, and help them explore problem-solving or conflict resolution strategies they should try next time.

4. Avoid yelling or threatening to use time-out. Time-out is not intended to be a harsh punishment. If you yell or act in anger while placing a child in time-out, it will stop the behavior but the child will be too overwhelmed with your anger to process what they did wrong that led to the consequence. Similarly, threats create negative interactions and set up situations where power struggles and aggressive behaviors are more likely.

5. Use warnings. Instead of using a threat like “Do you want a time out?”, give information such as “If you [throw a toy] again, you will sit in the chair” to remind children of the consequences and give them an opportunity to change their behavior. State warnings calmly without anger. If you have already told your child that a time-out will always be used for a specific action (such as hitting), than a warning isn’t necessary.

6. Give it time to work: Learning takes time and it would be unfair to expect a child to change their behavior overnight. It may take weeks or months before you start to see a reduction in the behavior but it does work when it is done right. If you think time-out doesn’t work, then you aren’t implementing it correctly or you haven’t implemented it for a long enough period to see the effects.

7. Make it brief (no longer than 1 minute per year for a child’s age). When time-out is too long, the child will forget why they were removed from the situation. They may also start to find ways to make the experience rewarding (e.g., making silly faces at their sibling or parent).

8. Use it immediately following the behavior. If you wait to implement time-out the child may mistakenly associate time-out with a different behavior or forget what they did.

9. Be consistent and always follow through. Once you use time-out for a specific behavior, you must use it every time the behavior occurs. When behaviors are inconsistently rewarded, they become more difficult to change.

10. Time-in must be more rewarding than time-out. If a child is sent to time-out while doing household chores, they may be happy about it. Or if a child is sent to their room they may enjoy playing alone without their sibling bothering them. Alternatively, if a child always acts out when they are bored or trying to get your attention, the brief attention they receive from time-out might be a reward for them.

11. Do not use it if your child lacks skills or is not developmentally ready to use more appropriate behaviors. Children act out because they lack skills to cope with challenging situations and problem-solve. Time-out does not teach children new skills to replace challenging behavior. Parents often miss teaching opportunities by focusing all their effort on consequences and not enough effort on understanding why their child misbehaved and what they should teach their child to do in the future if they encounter a similar problem or situation.

12. Do not use in isolation. Time-out will only work when it is used in conjunction with teaching and rewarding appropriate behavior. Don’t forget to acknowledge small steps toward positive behavior such as using words to express a feeling (even a negative one) or asking their sibling for a toy instead of grabbing it.

13. Use it as a last resort after other alternatives have been tried. Time-out should be reserved for behaviors that are harmful to the child or others and should be used infrequently. There are many alternatives to time-out that may be more appropriate in certain situations. Proactive strategies that teach children what “to do” and address environmental triggers for misbehavior are most effective followed by consequence-based strategies such as distraction, redirection, logical and natural consequences, withdrawal of materials, placing a toy in time-out, planned ignoring, or using positive time-outs that teach children to take a break when they feel angry and need to regain control.

Lastly, when time-out is inappropriately used, it can have unintended consequences. Some experts believe that time-out can be harmful for children’s social-emotional development because it may send negative messages to children.

For example, the child may mistakenly believe that it is not okay to be angry, that taking a break when you feel angry is a bad thing, or the child may learn to withdraw from situations that make them angry instead of problem-solving.

Time-out may also create missed opportunities to teach children conflict-resolution strategies. It is important to keep these shortcomings in mind and weigh the strengths and weaknesses of any strategy before deciding whether it is appropriate for your child and family.


Dr. B has a PHD in school psychology and specializes in early childhood development.