Time Out

The Right Age and Behaviors for Using Time Out

African American boy unhappy on sofa
JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images

Time out is often something that parents discover accidentally when their toddlers are just beginning to test the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior. For example, a mom might tell her toddler not to slap his brother several times and yet he keeps doing it -- or worse, does it while looking right at her and smiling. Right then and there, many moms would discover time out because they want the child to realize the behavior is unacceptable and also want to assert their authority as parents.

So, off the toddler goes to a high chair or other spot and thus begins time out in the home.

I recommend not starting to use this method as a serious form of discipline until your child is 2 years of age or older. At that age, toddlers are starting to understand cause and effect and time outs will work (with regular and proper use) because of this understanding. They are also starting to gain more self-control and can make choices (for instance, about whether to stay in or leave the time out area) that add to the success of this method. Before that time, certainly you can use a high chair to separate your child from hurting another child or harming property, but they are much less capable of understanding that what they did had a consequence and you will be frustrated when they don't seem to "get it" even after many time outs.

Now, let's look at some techniques on how to do time out the right way so that you and your toddler can get the most benefit from this method of discipline.

First, Create the Right Setting

The right setting is crucial. The end goal of discipline, after all, is to help our children learn to manage their own behavior. We may put some external control on them at first, but we don't want to do this forever. Setting up a fail-proof area for time out helps him make better choices.

If your time out area is in the living room in front of the television or in a hallway or playroom where siblings are running around, your child is going to be distracted and might even enjoy time out. At the very least, he isn't going to spend much time thinking about what's happened if he's got Dora the Explorer to think of instead.

Another spot that won't work is one where he's likely to get attention from you or another adult. He's way more likely to do things that will evoke a response from you if you're close by. Part of why time out works is the brief lack of attention from you. It's not supposed to be torture, but it's not supposed to be a pleasant time either. In addition, time out can be just as necessary for you, the parent. It gives you a moment to regain your composure and let go of any anger or frustration that may have built up as a result of your child's behavior. If he's sitting right there in front of you, looking at you, you might be tempted to rant a bit or lecture.

This is likely to diminish the benefit of time out.

The best place for a time out is one that is safe and child-proofed, with no distractions. You should be able to see and monitor your toddler, but he should not have direct eye contact with you. It should also not be too comfortable. A small step-stool or child-sized chair placed in an out-of-the-way corner of a dining room or another little-used room is best.

When To Use Time Out

As a teacher and parent, I always thought I was doing time out well. I'd taken workshops and college courses on discipline and read parenting books, so I figured I had this one covered. And I did, but I found out how I could improve from an unlikely source: Supernanny.

After repeatedly watching her deal with parents of out-of-control kids, I realized what my own technique lacked. Her technique assigns an age-appropriate time limit and encourages the use of time out for many situations. In the past, I'd used time out more as a way to help toddlers calm down or work out a tantrum and sometimes that takes much longer than 2 minutes. I never really used it to affect changes in other types of behaviors.

With some practice, I realized that -- when done properly -- time out can be effective in other situations as well. For instance, it works for any behavior that you want your toddler to stop: hitting, throwing things, screaming in the house, tearing a book, climbing the bookcase, you name it. Plus, I found it works just as well to get your toddler to start behaviors: pick up toys, get dressed, come to the bathroom to take a bath, etc.

Steps to an Effective Time Out

Again, Supernanny really helped me shape the way I handle this discipline method and these steps are modeled after her Naughty Step technique. And for good reason: These steps, quite simply, work.

  1. Warning: When your child misbehaves, give a warning first. Let him know, "I asked you to stop taking your shoes off outside. If you do it again, you'll have to have a time out." Resist the urge to lecture or your message will be lost.
  1. Explanation: If your toddler ignores your warning, follow through and take him to your designated time out spot. When he is seated, explain why he is there. "I asked you to stop taking your shoes off and you took them off again. I'm setting the timer for 2 minutes and then you can get up."
  2. Set Timer: Set the timer (a common rule is 1 minute per year of age) when your toddler is seated and calm, then leave the area and do not talk to your toddler or give any attention during the time out. If your toddler gets up, return him to the time out spot (as many times as necessary) without talking. Reset the timer and leave the area.
  3. Second Explanation: When the timer goes off, return to your toddler and explain once more why he had to have time out: "I asked you to stop taking your shoes off outside but you did it again and that's why you had to have time out."
  4. Apology: Ask your child to say that he is sorry for misbehaving and accept the apology if it is offered in a civil tone of voice. If it's not, give your child a warning and give another time out if he doesn't give you a gently spoken apology.
  1. Affection: After you've received an acceptable apology, offer your child physical affection. Kisses, a hug, a pat on the back and an "I love you" help your child understand that no matter what his behavior is like, you always love and care for him.
  2. Forgive and Forget: After the process is over, move on from the situation. Let go of any anger, resentment, and disappointment and let your child have a clean slate. Resist the urge to bring it up or carry on lecturing after the time out is over. Will your child misbehave in this way again? It's likely (especially if this is the first offense) but if you set up an expectation, it's a guarantee he'll act out this way again. Give him the chance to make mistakes and learn from them and one day you'll be very pleased when you see the behavior disappear. If you're still holding on to the misbehavior, however, expect that your child will do the same.

    Why One Minute Per Year of Age?

    When using time out to get a screaming toddler to gain control of his outburst, I recommend giving a toddler as much time as he needs. Anger and frustration in a toddler do not always resolve based on a clock and sometimes your attempts to help manage the situation just make it worse. Give your toddler time to work it out, but let him know it's not acceptable to just run around the house screaming or being otherwise disruptive, either.

    Eventually, he will learn to take a step back on his own when he's upset since you've been offering this opportunity from the beginning.

    When using time out as a way to shape behavior, you are putting a limit on an already calm and coherent toddler. This type of time out calls for quiet reflection on what happened and for a toddler, the limit of his attention span for this is about 2 minutes. As your child gets older, his attention span gets longer and he's able to integrate different types of thought into his reflection of his actions and their consequences.

    Does My Toddler Really Understand What an Apology Is?

    Some parents don't like to integrate this step into their own time out technique and that's completely fine. It will work without it as long as the other steps are followed and you're consistent with your follow-through. I can understand why parents might not wish to have their child express something that he doesn't understand or genuinely feel.

    You might feel like you're teaching them to lie.

    I personally like the apology, however. I think that there are many things we introduce into our kids in life that aren't real (like Santa). There are also things we make them do that they don't want to do (like giving smelly Aunt Bertha a hug or letting Grandmas pinch cheeks).

    We also ask our children to perform acts that they don't understand or feel genuinely (like saying "Please," "Bless you" or "Thank you") as a measure of politeness. We even ask our kids to express gratitude when they get gifts they do not like rather than express the disappointment they are really feeling. The understanding and internalization of things like gratitude and remorse come later, but in the meantime, most of us still ask for the "Thank you" or the "I'm sorry" each time so that our kids are used to going through the motions. Just make sure that as your child gets older, he's not becoming a manners robot. You should take time periodically to explain why we do what we do so that one day he will have a full realization of the act and the meaning behind it.

    Another reason why I like an apology is because it's not for the sake of your toddler. It's for the sake of the person who was offended, hurt, disrespected or violated. And in the case of rule-breaking, that's you. Your toddler should learn that an apology makes the other person feel better and can go a long way in mending feelings and relationships.

    In fact, if the time out is for harming another child, I always ask for an apology, not just for myself but I direct the toddler to give one to the child who was hurt (emotionally or physically).

    Does My Toddler Always Need a Warning?

    Almost always, yes. I saw a clip on America's Funniest Home Videos the other day that illustrates just how little toddlers know about the rules. A toddler had taken a magic marker and marked all over the inside of the car. Dad asked if she did it and she admitted it willingly. Then he asked if she was supposed to do it and, again, she shook her head affirmatively and without fear of any repercussions. It was as if using the car as a canvas was completely acceptable. The look in her eyes was one of pride. Of course, you'd assume that your toddler knows not to use magic marker all over the inside of the car, right? I mean, maybe he just had a time out last week for coloring on his wall. But the truth is, you can't make this assumption. Most toddlers are not able to take what they learned in one situation and apply it to another situation no matter how similar it is to you, the adult.

    There are, however, times when I feel a warning isn't necessary. If you've been working on a behavior for a long time, you can let your toddler know in advance that no warning is necessary. Say, "You've been in time out every day this week for tipping over the dog's water, so I'm not going to give any more warnings. If you do it, you'll go straight to time out." In addition, those acts where your child is harming another person and has been in trouble for this before need no warning.

    Another situation can apply here, but you have to be careful with your judgment. If your toddler does something intentionally to get your response or you see a clear look of realization on your toddler's face indicating he knows what he's done is wrong, then a warning is not necessary. These instances demand immediate follow-through. In the former, your child is testing you to see if you will keep your word. In the latter, your child is gaining an understanding of what's right and wrong on his own, so it's a perfect opportunity to reinforce his feeling and not brush it under the rug with a warning.

    Why No Talking?

    Toddlers are people of action. You can talk to them about what they've done wrong till you're blue in the face but all those words will be completely lost on them. They've barely processed the first thing you said before you're already halfway through a long tirade. Carry on much longer and the eyes start to glaze over and they zone out. Instead, you want to use as few words as possible to make your point and you want to follow the same simple routine each time. Use the simplest terms that you know your toddler can understand and then stop talking.

    If your toddler gets out of time out and you have to take him back, do so without speaking a word. You do not want to give him any attention (which can seem like a positive to a toddler in time out even when you're saying things that are negative) and you don't want to engage your toddler in a power struggle or exchange of any sort. If your toddler sees that you're becoming frustrated and you've let him off the hook in the past, he will push you to this again because it's given proven results. Maintain calm and control and don't talk.

    The Importance of Following Through Every Time

    Toddlers are creatures of habit and they feel secure when they know that they can depend on the adults in their lives to be predictable. They like waking up at the same time every day, they like naps at the same time every day, and they readily accept the routines we set for them like bath-story-drink-bedtime. The same is true of discipline. When your toddler knows what to expect, it sets up a framework that he can operate inside of.

    There will always be testing of the boundaries (that's what growing up is all about) but once your child learns where those boundaries are, he'll operate within them until there's some sort of change.

    When you don't provide consistency, you teach your child that you are unpredictable and this can be scary or unsettling to a child. When you say one thing, but do another, you only confuse your child and set up a precedent that you cannot be taken at your word. This makes it hard for your toddler to trust you. When you say that you are going to do something and you do not follow through (for example, by giving lots of warnings, each ending in a promise of time out that never gets enforced or you count to 3 but hit 2-and-a-quarter, 2-and-a-half and 2-and-three-quarters along the way) then you're sending the message that you don't mean what you say at all.

    More than anything else I know of, a lack of consistency and follow-through are the biggest predictors of future misbehavior in a toddler.

    Though time outs and consequences are hard to enforce at first, especially when you're exhausted from dealing with an active child and busy life, know that it gets easier the more you put it into practice. You'll find that, in time, much of your exhaustion will be lifted since won't be haggling over discipline all the time.

    What to Do When You're Not at Home

    When you're at a family member's home, out shopping or dining out, discipline is just as important. In fact, it might be even more important since family time rules are often more bendable and forgiving than society rules. There may be one or two tables with parents who understand what it's like to have a screaming toddler holding you hostage at a restaurant, but the rest of the tables will be staring you down in an effort to get you to do something about your child's behavior. And do something, you should. If your toddler knows that you won't follow through on discipline away from home, chances are, that's going to be the very place where you can expect his worst behavior.

    Follow, as best you can, the same steps you do at home. Start with a warning: "You may not throw your fork at the table." Find a quiet, out-of-the-way spot, start the timer on your phone or keep an eye on your watch, and make sure your child completes the full time out. Return to the table without animosity or anger, expecting that your child will behave, but be ready to take charge should he misbehave again.

    This is especially true the first few times you enforce time out away from home. You want to give him the message that you mean it so that he doesn't feel the need to test.

    And remember, don't feel bad about disciplining your child in public. Most people will be happy that you are taking action and will respect you for it. If you let your fear of what other people think of your parenting skills get in the way, you're sending a message to your child that there are special rules that apply when you're in public and one of those rules is that he's the one in charge, not you.

    As in most parenting situations, there is no one-size-fits-all method of toddler discipline. The more discipline tools you have at your disposal the better. Parents may find that the more they rely on one single method, the less effective that method becomes. When you use time out, pay close attention to your child's reaction. Be as consistent as possible, but remain flexible if you find that what you're doing isn't working any longer. You might want to try one of these other toddler discipline techniques instead.

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