By: Courtney Clark, LPC

Time out is a strategy that many caregivers use, but there are so many different ways to use them that many times they don’t seem effective. Through our research at the Behavior Clinic at Penfield Children’s Center, we have realized there are ways to use time outs that make them the most effective.

When to use a time out:

ONLY use a time out when someone could or did get physically hurt. This includes aggressive behaviors such as hitting, punching, scratching, or biting and any behaviors that endanger the child’s own safety such as running into the street, grabbing a knife, or turning on the stove. We have found that if you use a time out for too many other types of behaviors, they become ineffective so we strongly recommend you limit it to only dangerous or aggressive behaviors.

Why to use a time out:

You can use a time out to have a consequence for a behavior, in this case having to sit out of play or an activity for a short time. If we rely only on telling the child ‘no’ and that they hurt someone else after an aggressive behavior, usually this is not enough to decrease the behavior because kids’ brains won’t think about that in time to curb a future impulse simply due to how they’re wired.

The other reason to use a time out is to help your child learn that they are doing something that could hurt themselves or a friend. They need to take a break to calm down and re-regulate before continuing the activity. Kids will not do this on their own, in fact many adults struggle to do this, so we guide them to do it.

How to use a time out:

  1. Choose a specific spot in the home to use and use it every time. Having a new location each time causes kids to act out by testing the limits or finding things to play with in that location.
  2. Don’t expect the child to willingly walk to the time out spot on their own. Walk them to the spot to avoid a power struggle.
  3. Set a timer for one minute per year of your child’s age. This aligns with their attention span. We want the time out to be long enough that the child can calm down, but not so long that they forget why they are in it. Using a timer is VERY important so that the child knows that there will be an end to the time out. This also gives structure to the time out. If we just time it in our heads, kids think the time out ends when the adult decides it does and they will continue to fight with you throughout the time out, which does not lead to calming down.
  4. Ignore any tantrums. If your child leaves the general time out area, bring them back without saying anything. Save any explaining of what your child did wrong until after the time out; we want them to calm down during the time out instead of trying to argue with you.
  5. When the timer goes off, if your child is relatively calm, they can be done. Redirect them to an activity.
  6. If your child is not calm, reset the timer and let them know that they need to be calm to be done. Once the child is calm, they can leave the time out spot regardless of if the timer is up. Only reset the timer a maximum of two additional times. At that point we’ve maxed out their attention span so you’ll need to do your best to redirect the child.

You don’t have to call it a time out; some caregivers prefer saying “taking a break.” It doesn’t matter what it’s called as long as the steps are followed in the same way.

What strategies for time outs have worked well for your child?

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