10 Reasons Why Time Out May Not Be Working for Your Child

Common time-out mistakes parents make and how to fix them

time out - child discipline - boy angry sitting on chair
Is time out not effective in your home? There are some reasons why this child discipline tactic isn't working.. Sven Jacobsen/Getty Images

There's a reason why time outs are used by so many parents--when it works, it really works. But that doesn't mean it works every time, even for those parents who see time outs making a difference in their kids' behavior. The fact is that for some families, time outs simply may not be effective for their kids, or may work for one child but not his sibling. In other words, time out isn't a one-size-fits all solution to correct kids' bad behavior.

Some kids refuse to sit in time out or spend the entire time screaming and crying and upset. Others may not care about sitting still and are perfectly happy playing in their room. Or your child may come out of time out angrier than before and ready to go right back into bad-behavior mode. Here are some reasons why time out may not be working for you right now and solutions to these common time-out mistakes:

  1. Your child knows it's an empty threat. You may threaten time out for your child but not follow through. Like the boy who cried wolf, threatening to put your child in time out and then not doing it or being wishy-washy and only putting him in time out occasionally and backtracking when your child gets upset will dilute your effectiveness over time. When your child does something that requires a consequence, put him in time out right away and be consistent. (This goes for all child discipline strategies, not just time outs.)
  1. Your child is playing with toys in her room instead of thinking about her behavior during time out. And if you allow your child to watch TV or play on her phone or a computer or tablet, then it's not a time out as much as it is time for fun.
  2. You talk to your child while he's in time out. How can your child have the time and space to think about his bad behavior and why he's in time out when you are talking to him the entire time? Time out should be just that--a break--and not the moment to scold your child, talk about what he did wrong, over-explain why he's in time out, or engage with him in any way. It should be a chance for your child (and you) to calm down and for your child to take a break from whatever conflict or problem that led to the bad behavior, redirect his energy, and think about what he should and should not have done. It is not a time for parents to talk to their child, yell, or express frustration. You can discuss calmly what your child did wrong and what he can do better the next time AFTER time out is over.
  1. Your child feels insecure in time out. If your child is screaming and upset about being in time out, it's likely that she feels insecure. In a soothing voice, explain to her that you are just giving her time to be in a quiet place for her to calm down and think about what she did wrong. Reassure your child that you love her and will talk to her after the time out is over. With young children, you may want to sit nearby (but not engage with her) while she stays in time out.
  2. The time out is too long. For a 5-year-old, 15 minutes of time out is too long. As a general rule, keep time outs shorter for younger kids. The quality, not quantity, is what counts: You want your child to be in a quiet place where he can think about what he did to get himself in time out and what he can do the next time to not end up there again.
  3. It's too entertaining. If you send your child to her room where she can happily play with her toys or put her in front of a TV or give her a tablet or computer to play with, that is not time out. She needs a quiet, distraction-free space to think about her behavior.
  1. You're angry, yelling, or both when you tell him to go in time out. If you are emotional when you put your child in time out, you may send your child the message that you are rejecting him instead of giving him a consequence because of his behavior. Just as calmness can be infectious, so can being upset and angry. To avoid a battle of wills and lots of tears and turmoil, it's important that you explain to your child that you love him, but that you will not accept his bad behavior. Be calm and loving as you tell him that the time out is a consequence of his behavior and that it's a time for quiet thinking so that he makes better choices the next time, not a punishment because you are angry.
  2. You give up after trying it a couple of times. If time out isn't working (your child gets upset; you don't see any improvement in behavior; etc.), give it some time. Your child may simply need to adjust to the idea of thinking in a quiet space and learning how to calm himself down. Be consistent and calm and keep using time outs for at least several weeks before you throw in the towel. And as your child matures, you may want to try time outs again to get him to learn how to take a breather and calm down when he gets upset--a pretty important skill for school-age kids to develop.
  3. You are overusing time out. Is your child spending more time in time out than he is in positive interactions with you? If your child is in time out everyday, you may want to take a look at what's causing the bad behavior and find ways to stop the behavior before it starts. You may also want to consider other ways to discipline your child, such as taking away privileges. And most important of all, make sure you and your child build a strong bond, have lots of positive interactions and play and laugh and have fun together, and communicate regularly (such as by having family dinners as often as you can).
  4. You are not talking things over with your child after the time out is done. One of the most important components of time out is talking with your child after to discuss what happened, why there had to be a consequence, and what she can do differently the next time. By connecting with your child after she's had a chance to calm down and think during time out, you show your child that you love her and are there to guide her toward better behavior in the future.

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