Here is a helpful guide to setting up time-out for children.
Are you trying to start using time out with your children? Keep reading for tips on where, when and how to do time out so that it actually works to improve your kid’s behavior.
- What is the purpose of time out?
- What age is time out appropriate for?
- When should I use time out for my children?
- When you chose the behavior, you chose the consequences
- Where can time out be used?
- How long should time-outs last?
- How to create a time out place
- How to use time out for kids with RAD, ODD and special needs
- How can you set up time out with your family?
- What should I do if my child refuses to sit for the time out?
- Time out vs time in
Parents around the world, and especially in the United States, use time-out as a strategy to manage and improve their children’s behavior. This has become a popular discipline method as fewer parents use spanking and other forms of corporal punishment due to concerns about how spanking causes trauma and impacts healthy attachment.
But does time out actually work?
In this article you will learn ideas, resources and personal experience for a practiced parent about using time out.
Time out can be used with children with an attachment disorder or typical children without special needs. It is a tool that is useful in many settings and effective when used correctly.
What is the purpose of time out?
Time out is a brief, mild consequence. Time out is intended to be a brief separation that allows both the parent and the child an opportunity to cool off and decompress from high emotion.
- For the child, a time out should mean there is an opportunity to make a different choice.
- For a parent, a time out should mean there is an opportunity to get space to better coach your child.
Consider timeout as a parenting tool. Time out is not the only tool you should have in your toolbox for parenting your child, but it is one helpful option.
Parenting tools such as time out can assist in teaching and provide a safe space for parents and children to calm down. Time out is considered by parenting experts to be a valuable strategy.
What age is time out appropriate for?
The recommended age for time out to begin is 2-3 years of age, making time out for toddlers one parenting strategy for little ones.
Most parents don’t use time out on a child over the developmental age of 10 years old, although asking a child to go to their room to cool off continues to be effective for elementary school children and even teens.
Time out is an effective tool for children ages 2-10 years old. Keep in mind that not all children’s developmental age matches their chronological age due to special needs, neurodiversity, Intellectual Delays, trauma, or attachment issues.
When a caregiver provides a consistent consequence for misbehavior it is helpful for both the caregiver and the child.
When should I use time out for my children?
Time out should be used when your child is engaging in off track behavior.
These behaviors can include:
- breaking a family rule
- being unkind
- refusing to comply with an adult request
For example, in my home, hitting is an automatic time out. My children knew that it is violating a family rule to hit, and that there would be no warnings or second chances for hitting. If they choose to hit, they were choosing a time out.
When I was growing up, my parents would spank me with a belt if I hit my brother. That just didn’t make any sense to me. If I was in trouble for hitting someone, then why was it okay for my parents to hit me as a consequence?
I wanted to teach my kids that hitting was not an option, and I found that time out was a consequence I could use every single time they hit. There were times when I could see the wheels turning in my children’s eyes while they considered the consequences of hitting. Sometimes, they chose to hit anyway, and sometimes they made a better choice.
When you chose the behavior, you chose the consequences
There were times one of my sons would hit his brother, get up, and put himself in time out. I saw this as my son determining if the consequence was worth the behavior. I was fine with that outcome.
Yes, I want my child to refrain from hitting others, but I also want them to understand that when you chose the behavior, you chose the consequences.
Think about it as adults do. For example, we know the consequences of speeding while driving a car can be a costly ticket. There are times and situations when we decide the behavior is worth the possible consequence. We know we could get a ticket and we speed anyway; it is all about choices.
There are no parenting tools that I am aware of that only need to be used once. When selecting a consequence you are using with young children, you need to understand that you will have to use the consequence over and over again. Learning self control and emotional regulation is a long process, so select a discipline you can use many times and across multiple situations.
Where can time out be used?
Another benefit of time out is that you can use it anywhere. An ideal spot for time out is a boring place where your child will be safe and not able to engage in much stimulation.
I have used time out in public as well as in my home.
How long should time-outs last?
A common rule of thumb is that a time out should last one minute for every year of the child’s age, so a 3-year-old has a 3 minute time out and a 7-year-old has a 7 minute time out.
There are many opinions from parent experts on how long a time out should last, and there’s no one correct solution for every child and parent.
In my opinion, length of time is the least important part of doing a time out. Committing to following the expectations and being consistent are the more important elements of time out.
How to create a time out place
While at home, time out would be somewhere my children could not see a screen or be entertained. I would lay out the physical boundaries of where they could and could not be for their time out.
For example, I would say, “You have a time out. You can sit here by the stairs. You can show me you are ready for me to begin the timer by sitting with your bottom on the floor in this area.”
If it took my child awhile to get up and move to the time out area, I would not start the time out timer until they complied with my request. If my child chose to move from the area they were directed to sit, I would re-start the timer.
How to use time out for kids with RAD, ODD and special needs
I found time out to be an effective tool for me to use for my children with conduct disorders and my children without. For my kids with developmental trauma, I certainly restarted the time out timer many times, but that was something I committed to doing each and every time.
I understood that I was teaching my child that there are consequences to misbehavior no matter what. If I was giving a time out, I was committed to the process for however long that took. If my child got out of the chair 20 times, then I restarted the time out timer 20 times.
For my children with Reactive Attachment Disorder, I would typically use a chair for time out. My children with RAD required line of sight supervision, and I would place a chair in the area I could supervise them. I also anticipated that there would be a lot of boundary pushing and restarting the timer.
I would tell my child, “I will start the timer when all 4 legs of the chair are on the floor and you are sitting on your bottom. If you are sitting on your bottom or keeping the legs of the chair on the floor, we are restarting the timer.”
One of my children was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), and we still used time out. While it took much more patience and time, it was still a tool that we found effective for a brief, mild consequence.
How can you set up time out with your family?
To begin using time out with your family, explain and practice time out before it is being used. Explain what timeouts are and give kids examples of when you will ask your child to do a time out.
For example, you can say, “I have noticed it takes many reminders for you to put your shoes away. If I have to ask you to put your shoes away more than once, I will say you can put your shoes away OR you can take a time out. Let’s practice what that might look like.”
Next, talk about where time out will be, and what the steps of the process will look like. Tell your child what will happen if your they refuses to do a time out and when they successfully complete the time out.
What should I do if my child refuses to sit for the time out?
In our home, if you refused to do a time out you lost a privilege for 2 hours. I would walk away for a few minutes, collect myself and then return to direct my child to comply with my request. Then the process would start all over again. There were times I had to remove a privilege for 2 hours and still did a time out. It all depended on when my child decided to comply.
It was important that when you give a time out, you still expect your child to comply with your original request when the time out is completed. Otherwise, your child learns that going to time out is a way to get out of obeying a parent’s request.
For example, if you got a time out for not putting your shoes away after I reminded you, you still had to put your shoes away after you completed your time out. The lesson I was going for was that complying with adult request was not optional. A time out was not a replacement for putting your things away, it was a consequence for not doing what I asked. You still had to put your shoes away even after your time out.
I also believe it is important for parents to let it go when the time out is over. This one can be really difficult when you are frustrated, overwhelmed, and tired. Once the punishment is over, the interaction between you and your child should return to normal. Otherwise, what is the incentive to complete the punishment? If you are going to be mad at the child either way, why would they do what you asked?
Time out vs time in
Time out and time in are two separate parenting strategies with different uses:
- Time out removes the child from the situation.
- Time in keeps the child close to the parent or caregiver.
Time in is a tool that is focused on attachment. Some professionals would argue that using time out is not helpful for a child with an attachment disorder. While I understand this argument, I would assert that I was not always in a place to work on my attachment with my children.
Time in is about co-regulating emotions and identifying the child’s need. As a parent of four children (two of which with attachment disorders) I appreciate the tool of time in.
I have used time in and time outs with all 4 of my children. The reality is that I needed both of these tools. I needed to have a consequence I could use for off-track behavior, and a method to assist my child when they were emotionally dysregulated.
Parents of children with attachment disorders have a great deal of judgement from others about their parenting techniques, and very few tools that help gain compliance. I personally have found time out to be a helpful tool.
Do you use time out for your child? Share about it in the comments below.