How to Use Time-Out

by  Lindsay Cote

As a child psychologist, I frequently assist parents to learn effective ways of managing their children’s difficult behaviour. Invariably, when I ask parents what strategies they have used, I am told: “We’ve tried time-out. It doesn’t work.” There is some truth to this - not every strategy will work for every child and it is important to find what works for you and your family. However, when I probe further, I often find that time-out isn’t being used as effectively as it could be. So what does effective time-out look like?

Time-out is a way to respond to serious behaviour, such as tantrums or aggression, by removing your child from the situation in which the behaviour occurs and removing access to any rewards. Time-out is best used to teach children to calm themselves quickly, as difficult behaviour typically occurs when a child is frustrated or otherwise having difficulty controlling himself or herself. Below are a few tips for using time-out effectively:

• Find an appropriate time-out spot. Your child’s bedroom is not appropriate due to the presence of “rewards” - toys, a bed to lay on, etc. Any room that provides very little stimulation will do the trick - the toilet or laundry can be useful in this respect.

• Determine how long time-out will be and do not allow your child out until your child has been quiet and calm for the time period. Short periods are best - as a guide, 1-2 minutes for 2-5 year-olds, and up to 5 minutes for children up to 10 years old. Do not start the timer until your child is quiet. If your child yells out, restart the timer. Do this as many times as required.

• You determine when your child comes out of time-out - not your child. If your child comes out of time-out early, calmly lead your child back. If this is a frequent issue, a closed door or lock can be effective.

• Do not speak or give any attention to your child when he or she is in time-out. Your child may do many things to get a response, such as calling out to ask how much longer. When your child does so, start the clock over.

• Be consistent. It is appropriate to explain the time-out rules to your child before implementing it. The more consistent you can be, the more effective.

• Your child’s behaviour may escalate when time-out is implemented. This is likely to be your child pushing the boundaries to see if you will give in. If you use time-out consistently, your child’s behaviour should improve within a couple of weeks.

• When time-out is finished, always bring your child back to the situation in which the difficult behaviour occurred to give your child an opportunity to demonstrate the correct behaviour. If your child again misbehaves, bring your child back to time-out and start the process over. Do this as many times as necessary.

• If you have concerns that your child is unsafe in time-out, stop time-out immediately.

• Some children may scream for a long time or become destructive. This is when it is most important to be firm. It may be worthwhile to repair dents in the wall later if it means that your child’s behaviour improves.

• Never threaten time-out; just do it. The use of threats teaches children to comply with threats, not instructions (i.e., “Mum/Dad’s not serious if they’re not counting to three/threatening to take away the iPad/etc.”).

• Reserve time-out for serious misbehaviour, such as  destructive behaviour, physical aggression, or tantrums.