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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 other 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.

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