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Does “Time Out” Really Help Curb Bad Behavior?


When it comes to childhood rites of passage, almost everyone who grew up in a disciplined household has probably done his or her share of “timeouts.” For children who are misbehaving or acting out in some manner, a timeout is a corrective measure enforced by parents or caregivers to try and correct a child’s behavior as well as time for both adults and children to cool down from emotional outbursts.

Research shows that children don’t listen or pay attention to as many as 40 percent of a parent or caregiver’s commands—leaving these adults at a loss over what to do in these situations. When a child doesn’t listen or misbehaves, adults typically respond with everything from threats to repeating commands over and over—which can be exhaustive and unproductive. This is when timeout can often save the day.

Origination of the term timeout

The term timeout first appeared in the 1960s research journals and has been recommended by child psychologists ever since. Basically, a timeout is intended to be a break from a child’s playtime or normal routine to provide a safe and effective consequence for a child’s disobedience and/or aggressive behaviors. Timeouts are most effective at reducing misbehavior in young children between 2 and 6 years old, according to most experts.

Using timeout is also endorsed by leading childcare experts. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both support timeout as a best practice for behavior management in young children.

But to be effective, timeouts have to be planned and used consistently. For example, some parents and caregivers may choose to lecture a child while they are in timeout, but this approach actually reinforces negative behavior by giving the child special attention. Other parents make the mistake of making timeout too long (experts say timeouts lasting more than 5 minutes are not that effective). And some caregivers also forget to make the child do what they were originally asked to do before the timeout (for example, clean their room or pick up their toys).

Tips to help parents and caregivers effectively use timeouts

1. Clearly define what a timeout is: Many parents and caregivers are not clear on what leads to a timeout and use it based on their own level of frustration or anger—instead of a child’s bad behavior. So be specific on what you define as timeout behavior such as “hitting your sister” or “not cleaning your room.” Also, try and only use timeouts for specific behaviors or offenses because overuse can cause timeouts to become less effective. Also, make sure you decide beforehand where the timeout will be and for how long. Timeouts work best in a boring place, like a chair in a dining room where a parent or caregiver can supervise the child without giving them too much attention. Try to refrain from letting a child do timeout in their bedroom because there are too many fun distractions like toys and books.

2. Timeout warnings: If your child is doing something that deserves a timeout (like not following directions), give a timeout warning in a calm voice that if the behavior continues, the child will have to be put in timeout. Give it another five minutes, and, if the child continues to misbehave or not follow your directions, put the child in timeout. However, if the child corrects the behavior after the timeout warning, be sure to praise him or her for correcting their behavior.

3. Explaining timeout: When you send a child to timeout make sure the child clearly understands why they are being punished. Give the reason in a calm voice and try not to lecture or scold the child and do not argue with them or accept any excuses for their misbehavior. Parents and caregivers should explain to children that they will have to sit down in the designated space without talking or playing, allowing them time to think about their misbehavior.

4. Time in timeout: Experts say that timeout should last between 2 and 5 minutes for toddlers and preschoolers. A good rule of thumb to follow is to give 1 minute of timeout for every year of the child’s age. This means that a 2-year-old would sit in timeout for 2 minutes, and a 3-year-old would have a 3-minute timeout. If a child was sent to timeout for breaking a family rule, for hitting or doing something dangerous, parents and/or caregivers might want to remind the child of expected behavior in the future. For example, you can tell the child, “Remember our rule: keep your hands and feet to yourself.”

5. Repeating timeout: If a child does not do what a parent or caregiver has instructed them to do or corrected the behavior that got them in timeout in the first place, the child should repeat timeout. It may take several times before a child learns his or her lesson and fully comprehends what a timeout is.

6. Alternatives to timeout: If a child refuses to sit in timeout, parents and caregivers can try other options like having a child write out a list of ways they should act; offer a hug to a child who may be acting out; and teaching a child to identify and manage their emotions (especially good with tantrum-prone children).  

By ABC Quality Team on November 3, 2020