If you have a child or work with children, you’ve probably issued a time-out or two. Are time-outs effective disciplinary techniques, though — or are these breaks simply adding fuel to the fire of your child’s misbehavior?
The answer is complicated. For certain children, time-outs are great, but for other kids, time-outs might not work well at all. Learn more about time-outs and develop your own discipline strategy after reading the following guide.
What Is a Time-Out?
During a time-out, you’ll send the child to their room, a quiet place in the house, or a specific seat for a short period of time (usually one to three minutes). time-outs can be useful for young children, but they don’t work well for babies or older kids.
It’s up to parents and caregivers whether or not they use time-outs as part of their parenting routine. If you do choose to use time-outs, know that there is a right way — and a wrong way — to use a time-out for kids.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Time-Outs
Deciding how to discipline your child can be difficult, and it’s likely that you, your spouse or partner, your parents, siblings, and in-laws all have different opinions about what you need to do. Consider these benefits and drawbacks before ruling this strategy in or out.
Benefits. Time-outs show your child that when you set a limit, you stick to it. They teach your child how to process their feelings in a safe space, and they also model for your child that it’s a good idea to take a break if you’re feeling angry or emotional.
Drawbacks. Time-outs aren’t a magical cure for bad behavior — in fact, your child may start acting out or misbehaving more in the beginning just for the sake of pushing your boundaries. Time-outs also may be emotionally hurtful to some kids who feel that they are being left alone or ignored when they’re dealing with big feelings.
How Old Is Too Old for a Time-Out?
According to many psychologists and parenting experts, the “one minute per year of age” rule works well for toddlers and preschoolers. Babies are too young to understand the meaning of a time-out, and they don’t need them because "bad" baby behavior is actually just developing communication.
Usually, toddlers and younger elementary schoolers (from around two to age eight) benefit the most from time-outs. Older children will respond better to more complex consequences like taking away an electronic device or adding more chores to their schedule. Kids who are older than eight, as well as teens, should be able to take responsibility for their behavior — but, at times, this might include taking a minute or two to cool down in their rooms.
When Are Time-Outs Ineffective?
Are time-outs bad overall, or do they work well for some kids? Time-outs can be an effective parenting tool when used correctly. These little breaks won’t be effective for every child, though, and at times, they can actually make your child’s behavior problems worse. Use time-outs with caution, and keep your child's personality, age, and ability to learn from the time-out in mind.
Don’t use a time-out in the following scenarios:
With a very young child. Toddlers under two, as well as most little kids, don’t have the ability to think logically about their behavior. Use time-outs carefully with toddlers. They are overwhelmed by big emotions many times a day and might just need help to put these strong feelings into words.
When a child is having a meltdown. Kids with autism and other developmental differences may have meltdowns related to sensory overload, which is not bad behavior. Using a time-out to deal with this type of scenario will punish the child for something they’re already having trouble with. If your child is physically aggressive with others or self-injures when they're upset, talk to your doctor about what to do in this situation.
When you simply need time alone. Don’t give your child a time-out if you just need a minute away from your child to collect your thoughts. This will confuse your child. Try telling your child that you need a moment to breathe instead.
When you give a warning but don’t follow up with a time-out. Time-outs only work when you follow through. If you issue a warning but then forget to give the time-out, the time-outs will become less effective and more confusing for the child.
How to Give a Time-Out the Right Way
You shouldn’t give time-outs for every little thing your child does that annoys you, but it’s important to be consistent with discipline and only to use this tactic for behaviors that the child knows are wrong.
Use these additional rules to guide your time-out technique:
Warn the child that they will get a time-out for misbehavior. First, make sure your child understands your rules. When they don’t listen or disobey, give them one warning — and only give it once. This will help your child learn to listen and obey you the first time you ask.
Follow the “one minute per year of age” rule. Most experts who endorse time-outs stick to this rule. A two-year-old should get two minutes, a three-year-old should get three minutes, and so on.
Reconnect with the child to talk about what happened. This may be the most important step of the time-out because many children feel confused and even hurt when you leave them alone when they’re upset. This talk gives your child clarity and allows you both to move on.
If possible, practice quiet times with your child. The goal of using time-outs is to give your child a quiet place to calm down when dealing with strong emotions. Another option is to take a quiet time with your child where you discuss what happened before returning to the situation. This approach will probably not work if your child is screaming, arguing, or defiant before the time-out happens. In such cases, let your child calm down and have the conversation later.
All children are unique. Remember that while time-outs may work well for one child, you may need to discipline another child differently. Reach out to your child’s pediatrician to discuss more strategies for encouraging good behavior.