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​​​Toddler email series Issue12345

The Ins and Outs of Using Time-Out

Time-out is a way of disciplining your child for misbehavior without raising your hand or your voice. It involves removing your child from the good stuff in life ​for a short time immediately following a misbehavior.

Time-out for children is like a penalty for a hockey player. When a hockey player misbehaves on the ice, he has to go to the penalty box 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 his penalty time, the player is not allowed to play, only watch. Hockey players don't like penalties because they would rather be playing hockey than watching.

Keep this hockey comparison in mind when you use time-out with your child. Children usually do not like time-out because it keeps them from doing the things they like (playing, doing puzzles, having fun with you). Over time, children decrease or stop using negative misbehaviors so they can avoid time-out and continue doing the things they enjoy.

Here are some tips for effectively using time-out with your child.

Where should the time-out area be located?

  • You do not have to use the same area each time; just make sure the location is convenient for you.
  • Whatever spot you choose, a chair, a step, a footstool, a bench or a couch, will work.
  • Make sure the area is well-lit and free from all dangerous objects, and that 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 of your child's age. So if you have a 2-year-old, aim for two quiet minutes.
  • Your child probably won't like going to time-out, so keep in mind that it may take some time to get him or her to stay quiet for those two minutes. This is especially true when you first start using time-out and your child doesn't quite know the rules and cannot believe you are doing this to him or her.
  • Remember, discipline works best when you stay calm.

How does time-out work?

  • Immediately following a problem behavior, tell your child what he or she did and take him or her to time-out.
  • For example, you might say, "No hitting. Go to time-out." 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).
  • Avoid giving your child a lot of attention while he or she is being put in time-out. Say nothing! Do not argue with, threaten or spank your child.
  • Begin the time when 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 when 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.
  • Once the time is up, your child must be seated and quiet to get out of time-out. Using a timer can be helpful but it's not necessary. If you use one, remember the timer is to remind you that time-out is over, not your child.

What counts as quiet time?

  • Generally, quiet time is when your child is not angry or upset, and is not yelling or crying. It's up to you to decide when your child is calm and quiet.
  • 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 area before time is up?

  • Say nothing! Calmly (and physically, if necessary) return your child to the step or 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 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.
  • What do we mean by nothing? We 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. 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. Children may spit up, wet themselves, blow their nose on their clothes, 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.

When should I use time-out?

  • When you first start, use it for only one or two problem behaviors.
  • After your child has learned how to "do" time-out, you can expand the list of problem behaviors.
  • Problem behaviors generally fall into three categories:
    • 1. Anything that is dangerous to self or others
    • 2. Defiance and/or noncompliance
    • 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 an instruction (e.g., "Take the goldfish out of the toilet."). Then if the child does not comply, you can use time-out for noncompliance.
  • Use time-out as consistently as possible. For example, try to place your child in time-out every time he or she uses a targeted behavior. It's impossible to do this 100 percent of the time, but be as consistent as you can so your child learns the connection between his or her behaviors and the consequence of time-out.

What do I do when time is up?

  • When the time-out 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 to time-out, how the child behaved while there, 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 the time-out over again.
  • If you placed your child in time-out for not following an instruction, repeat the instruction. This will help your child learn that you mean business. It also gives your child a chance to behave in a positive way that you can praise.
  • If your child 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 follows them, praise the performance. If not, the child stays in time-out for the required time.
  • Use these opportunities to teach your child to follow your instructions when those instructions are delivered in a normal tone of voice without being repeated.
  • Generally, try to end time-out with praise for good behavior. Once time-out is over, reward your child for using the behaviors you want him or her to use; catch your child being good.

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

  • Yes. Before using time-out, simply explain the rules to your child once during a time when he or she is not misbehaving.
  • Tell your child what problem behaviors time-out will be used for and how long it will last.
  • Practice using time-out with your child before you actually use it in response to a negative behavior. 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 have done your part to explain the "fine print."

Teaching Activity

Practice Time-Out

Practice time-out using these steps:

  • Choose time-out areas.
  • Explain time-out to your child.
  • Use time-out every time the problem behaviors occur.
  • Be specific and brief when you explain why your child must go to time-out.
  • Do not talk to or look at your child during time-out.
  • If your child leaves the time-out area, return him or her with no talking.
  • Your child must be calm and quiet to leave time-out once time is up.
  • Your child must politely answer "Yes" when you ask, "Would you like to get up?" after the time-out is over.
  • If you wanted your child to follow an instruction, give him or her another chance after time-out is over. Deliver a few other easy-to-follow commands so your child clearly learns who is in charge and who is not.
  • Catch your child being good and give praise when you see it.

Social Skills

Introducing Yourself

During the time-out section of this course, you will probably need a break from learning about how to discipline your child. Practicing the skill of "Introducing Yourself" is a fun activity to do with your child. Here are the steps:

  • Look at the person and smile.
  • Use a pleasant voice.
  • Say, "Hi, my name is…".
  • Shake the person's hand.
  • When you leave, say "It was nice to meet you".

You also can practice this skill with members of your family and model it for your children when you are in situations where you are meeting new people.

Coming up in Issue 5

Making Rewards Valuable


Catch Them Being Good


Accepting Compliments

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