TIMEOUT! How To Do It Right

You’ve either used it, tried to use it, or been told you need to use it. Timeout is one of the most tried-and-true tools in the child discipline toolbox, but is it working for you? Are you using it right? Does it give you and your kiddo the results you want?

Let’s re-visit this old friend and see if we can give her a bit of a facelift.

Where? The timeout place is an important part of its success. It should be easily accessible and in view for monitoring. A special chair in the corner of the family room or dining room works well. If you can’t use it easily, you won’t use it.

For How Long? Less is more here. One minute per year of age is a good rule of thumb.  If a timeout gets too long it loses effectiveness. Kids have wonderful and creative imaginations that will take over before long and turn the timeout into an adventure. Think Where The Wild Things Are. Use a kitchen timer placed nearby (but out of arm’s reach) so both you and your kiddo know how much time is left. Consider an ‘added time rule’ for that short list of serious infractions.

For What? Be very specific about which behaviors will result in a time out. Define them in concrete terms and give them a warning first. Make sure they understand: ‘If you bite your brother, you’ll need to sit in the timeout chair’. Don’t dangle it as a vague threat or a looming possibility. NEVER say stuff like ‘Be a good boy or you’ll find yourself in timeout’. Ix-nay.

How? It’s important to have a set routine and procedure for timeout that doesn’t vary.

It might begin with a statement like ‘You’re going to the timeout chair for (whatever the behavior was). Try to say this without anger and with as little emotional charge as possible (not easy, takes practice). It’s a simple statement of irrefutable fact.

Set the timer and let the child know he’ll be in timeout until the bell rings. During that time he should not speak or communicate with you (or others in the household), nor you with him. Set other rules for the timeout period, if needed. If the timeout rules are broken the timer should be reset.

Make sure everyone in your home is onboard with the drill. Consistency is key. Timeout with dad should be the same. Ditto for the babysitter.

What If … ? Timeout is a useful technique, but it only works if your kiddo complies. Some of the craftiest little guys are quick to figure out how to sabotage efforts by refusing to sit in the chair, making noise, or otherwise defeating the purpose. It helps to begin the timeout system early on (by age 2 or 3) when indoctrination works best.  It will need to be replaced by more sophisticated techniques by about age 10.

The ‘challenging child’ may need a reward or withdrawal system to accompany timeout. Consider subtracting 30 seconds from the total time if your kidlet goes immediately to the timeout chair when told to. If he refuses, consider taking away privileges, like computer time or a favorite toy, until the timeout has been completed.

Timeout is an effective technique because it’s immediate, fast, and non-punitive.  It doesn’t shame your child and cuts down on lots of yelling and threats. It encourages kids to take responsibility for their behavior because the results are so obvious.

Remind your child frequently that you didn’t put him in timeout, he put himself in timeout. It’s like gravity. Cause and effect.

Is It Working? Keep a tally of timeouts and the behaviors that caused them so you’ll know if they’re decreasing. If not, take another look at your procedure. Is it consistent? Are the rules clear? Is it emotionally neutral? Are you or your kiddo getting some secondary gain that you hadn’t noticed?

Timeout can make a difference for your family if you work it right.

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.


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4 responses to “TIMEOUT! How To Do It Right”

  1. The Tone Of Your Voice Speaks Volumes

    […] Stop, take a deep breath, get down to his level, look him in the eye and THEN say in your stern, serious “Mommy’s not happy” voice, “Andrew. I DO NOT like what you are doing right now. You may NOT hit your sister. Do you hear me? Do you understand? And if you do it again, you are going to have a time-out.” […]

  2. jonathan

    I do not use time outs. The message they send is that you (little dear loved one) are not loved unconditionally. You are only loved so long as you obey standards which you do not understand and can’t be expected to understand until later when your brain develops more. Otherwise, you’re going to have to sit in that chair in the corner and feel shame or anger or frustration until the clock runs out.

    My wife and I have firm limits, we are not the least bit permissive. But we practice empathy, and little by little, we’ve nourished a deep connection with our son. We model the behavior we expect from him and, guess what?, he has learned from us everything he knows. He acts just like a 3 year old would be expected to act. But he knows that when he is defiant we will hold the limit (whatever it may be) and yet we’ll listen and pay attention to his objections. This is often enough to make him “feel felt”–and he accepts that he won’t get what he wants (to play more at bedtime, to bite his sister, etc.) but that we will always listen to his argument and hear his objections. And that we love him unconditionally.

    What this parenting requires is Time In! not time outs….

  3. Michelle King

    Before I had my daughter, I used to say and believe, “God gave us butt cheeks to spank the child without hurting them.” But when my child was old enough to start being disciplined, I spanked her butt with my hand because she was misbehaving after a bath.
    Well, when I saw my hand print on her butt, I KNEW RIGHT AWAY THAT HITTING, SPANKING of the such is not for me or my child. I almost cried when I saw my handprint on her after giving her a good swat on the butt. Therefore, we use timeout and I try to make the punishment fit the crime. In this case, next bath take away her favorite tub toy. I also let her know at first hand that this will happen next time she acts out like that. I rarely give her punishments because the 1,2,3 works very well for us. Hope this helps, Michelle.

  4. I’ve Got A Biter!

    […] After things calm down, explain that when she is mad or upset she has to use her words to talk about it. Help her understand that you are not upset with her because she was angry but because she bit you. Let her know loud and clear that she may not use her body to hurt people and next time, she will get a time out. […]

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