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How to master time-out to improve child behavior

May 5, 20217 minutes read time
Reviewed by: Professor Mark Dadds and Dr Lucy Tully

Key points:

  • When used correctly, time-out is an effective way to help manage children’s challenging behaviour
  • Time-out temporarily takes kids away from the fun until they’re calm and quiet
  • Time-out takes some planning, clear rules and consistent use
  • As a discipline strategy it works best when combined with lots of ‘time-in’, which includes praise and encouragement of positive behaviour, and quality parent-child time

What is time-out?

Parenting is no walk in the park. When used correctly, time-outs can make it easier. Think of time-out as one tool in your parenting toolbox, that can help get you through tough times.

Time-out is basically just a discipline strategy to help manage children's challenging behavior. It's all about guiding kids towards better behavior by teaching them that when they misbehave they temporarily lose the chance to be around the fun. Time-out also removes the attention kids receive from parents for misbehavior. It's an approach that's been proven to work when used correctly.​

Time-out is a bit misunderstood. It’s really just a brief and effective strategy to help parents stay calm, and avoid discipline escalating into threats, rejection and smacking. It also helps kids build self-control and keep their emotions in check. We call that a win.

Time-out:

  • Acknowledges misbehavior won’t be tolerated
  • Cuts down on the attention kids receive for acting up
  • Provides parents with an effective way to use discipline calmly and consistently without emotional rejection, threats, yelling or smacking
  • Takes kids away from the action temporarily, where they must be quiet and calm for around 2 minutes
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Why time-out works

Time-out works best when there’s a lot of ‘time-in’. That is, lots of specific praise, rewards and quality time spent with parents. Without lots of ‘time-in’, parents often find that time-out is less effective. So increasing ‘time-in’ is the first step before using time-out.

Professor Mark Dadds from the Child Behavior Research Clinic is the mastermind behind Movember’s Family Man and a time-out expert.

Research by Professor Dadds and another one of Family Man’s child behavior experts Dr Lucy Tully, found that time-out works in three ways:

  1. Having their parent’s attention is a major motivator for kids. They can even be motivated to misbehave to get attention. Use of time-out allows parents to briefly take away the attention children receive for misbehavior. So kids learn that misbehaving isn’t the best way to get their parent’s attention. They also learn that misbehaving means they miss out on being around other people and the fun for a short time.
  2. By ending time-out when the child is calm for the set period of time, it teaches children that they can self-regulate their behavior and emotions.
  3. By showing the child that loved ones can separate and reunite (that is, go into time-out and return to time-in) without damaging the emotional bonds between them, time-out can repair and strengthen parent-child attachments which are fundamental to healthy child development.

Read the research.

Learn more about time-out and the power of attention in the Family Man interactive parenting video series, and master these powerful parenting tools. ​

Correct use of time-out

Research has shown that when used correctly, parents find time-out effective and keep using it. Not surprisingly, research also shows that when parents use it incorrectly, they find it ineffective and stop using it. They may then revert to harsher discipline methods. So correct use of time-out is important and involves planning and preparation, as well as following the evidence-based steps of time-out.

Correct use of time-out also involves:

  • Paying no attention to the child while in time-out. It can be tough going at first, but ignore calling out, yelling, whining and screaming. If you respond, the child will learn to call out next time they are in time-out. By learning that being quiet and calm ends time-out, children are learning the important skill of emotion regulation.
  • Letting the child know when their time is up. Time-out works best if it is controlled by you the parent rather than by the child. If the child comes out of time-out before their time is up, return them to time-out.
  • Staying calm while using time-out.
  • Using time-out consistently (every time a problem behavior occurs). While it’s not possible to be 100% consistent, parents should aim to be as consistent as possible. Consistency also means all parenting team members use time-out for the same misbehavior.
  • After time-out is over, returning the child to time-in immediately (and look for an opportunity to provide specific praise for the correct behavior).
  • If the child went to time-out for not following instructions, repeat the instruction after time-out is over. If the child doesn’t follow the instruction a second time, they will need to go back to time-out.
Young girl crying during time-out

Getting ready for time-out

Effective use of time-out takes planning. You’ll have to think ahead about:

Let us explain.

1. Location

The best location, by far, is one that’s safe and also really boring. No toys, no games, no fun stuff. Common places include the corner of a room, a chair placed away from the action, a spare room (or room without toys) or a hallway. You may need to safetyproof it by locking cupboards or removing objects that could get broken. Work with the space you have, but the most important thing is that time-out should be safe and where there are no fun things happening.

2. Rules

Decide exactly how time-out works in your house.

  • How Long? Brief time-outs are just as effective as longer ones, but the key to time-out is that children must be quiet and calm for a set period of time. Around 2 minutes is usually enough.
  • How do they get out? By being calm and quiet for the set period of time.
  • How does time-out get extended? Any yelling, talking or other noise starts the 2-minute timeframe all over again.

3. Rehearsing

Run through the time-out game plan with the entire family. Parenting is a team sport and this can actually be a playful exercise.

To start, make sure everyone knows the time-out location and rules. This is important. Choose one family member to play the misbehaving child and do a run through of time-out, so your child knows exactly what to expect the first time you use it. It is important to show the child what will happen if they call out or come out of time-out before their time is up, so they know what to expect the first time this happens. Remind them that calling out will not get a response.

How to give kids a time-out

Follow these steps towards a time-out when your child’s behavior calls for it.

1. Approach

Walk over to your child. Get down physically on their level to get their attention and use their name.

2. Stop and start

  • Give clear ‘stop and start’ instructions.
  • Begin by saying what your child needs to stop doing. Follow it up with what they need to start doing. Example: “Zac, stop making so much noise with your toy. Please play in the other room.” Avoid phrasing the instruction as a question (e.g., “can you stop making noise?”) as children will think they are being given a choice.
  • Use a calm, boring voice. Raised voices or high energy reactions can escalate the situation and create an unintended exciting moment for the child.
  • As part of your discipline plan, only repeat instructions twice before using a time-out. Two instructions are enough for children to know what you expect from them. By giving only two instructions, this helps you stay calm and respond quickly.

3. Time-out

If after giving the instruction twice, the child does not comply, it’s time for time-out.

  • Let the child know what the problem was (e.g., “you haven’t done as I asked”) and the consequence (“now you need a time-out”).
  • Take your child to the designated time-out location.
  • Calmly let them know that they need to stay there for 2 minutes of quiet time (“you need to stay and be quiet for 2 minutes”).

Time-out and each of these steps are covered in more detail in Family Man's interactive parenting video series.

Is time-out bad for my child?

Despite there being some myths out there about time-out, research has shown that when used correctly time-out is an effective and safe discipline strategy. Not only does it work to help improve child behavior but it can also increase child well-being and happiness.

Family Man’s Professor Mark Dadds has spent decades researching parenting techniques that promote:

  • Happy and healthy children
  • Positively handling problems as a team
  • More dads getting involved

Read about Professor Dadds’ research which found that time-out has an unwarranted bad rap.

However, Professor Dadds notes it’s important to understand that all forms of discipline, including time-out can be harmful when used incorrectly. Specifically, any discipline that involves humiliation, violence, ostracizing and so on has the potential to harm a child. Time-out that involves removing a child in a harsh, negative or rejecting way is potentially harmful.

When to use time-out

Tough times call for time-out. It can be used anytime there is challenging child behavior, whether it’s aggression, breaking house rules or simply not doing as they’ve been told. It is most appropriate for managing misbehavior in children aged 2 to 8 years.

It’s important to let children know which behaviors will lead to time-out. This happens as part of your planning for time-out and setting house rules.

When not to use time out

Time out should not be used:

  • When the child is acting out of fear
  • When a child has made a mistake or had an accident
  • For rejecting or humiliating a child
  • With a child who has not been introduced to how time-out works.

How often to use time-out

As often as needed. It’s helpful to keep a record of how many times you use time-out. Also jot down how long it takes your child to reach the 2 minutes of quiet time. It may take a while on the first or second try, but this should get quicker over time. Your record of time-out will let you know if the strategy is effective, because the misbehavior should be decreasing.

Young boy misbehaving and in need of a time-out

Tips for using time-out

What to do if your child cries during time-out

It’s completely natural to want to comfort your upset child.

Your time and attention are the greatest rewards you can give your child. And a reward is not what you should give in this moment.

It’s also not a time for hugs. We don’t want to teach children that misbehaving will lead to hugs.

What to do if your child yells during time-out

You’ll need to start the time-out clock again. Children quickly learn to follow the rules and stay quiet during time-out.

Checking on your child during time-out

It’s best not to talk to your child while they’re in time-out or remind them of the rules. Time-out works best when your child gets no attention while it’s happening. However, it is important to stay close to your child when in time-out so you can monitor them and their safety.

In rare situations, a child might need attention to go to the toilet, if they’re ill, or damaging things. Professor Dadds recalls one instance in which a child was calling out that he could smell gas! At times like these you need to check on the child and if so, do it calmly and in a matter-of-fact way, check the child is ok and then let time-out continue.

When to start time-out for toddlers

The parenting strategies covered in Family Man such as time-out are suitable for children from 2-8 years old, so perfect for toddlers. If your 2-year-old or 3-year-old is misbehaving, try putting them in time-out. For younger children it’s important to keep instructions simple, and do a practice run first so they know what’s expected of them.

How to end a time-out

Don’t let your child decide when to come out of time-out. Time-out works best when controlled by the parent.

Now is not the time to remind your child why there were in time-out or revisit the problem behavior. It could re-escalate the situation. It’s best to keep discipline brief and return to time-in as quickly as possible.

It’s also not the time to try and force an apology. It’s best to move on and discuss later when you’re both calmer.

What if time-out doesn’t work?

Don’t stress. It’s common for parents to find that their first use of time-out was challenging or did not appear to work all that well. Don’t give up. Carefully and calmly review and fine-tune how you used time-out and try to get it working smoothly. Persistence is important.

It’s common for a child’s behavior to escalate in time-out the first few times they experience it. However, children quickly learn the rules, and parents should see it starting to work within a week or so, if it’s being used calmly and consistently. If it still isn’t working after trying the techniques in this article, seek support and expert advice on what’s going wrong.

Time-out when you're out and about

Problem behavior often rears its head at the most inconvenient times – like when you’re not at home. When possible, plan where you can use time-out. Remember that time-out can be adapted to different situations, like a friend’s place or grandma’s house, or in the car. When using time-out outside the home, show your child where time-out will happen so they know what to expect. Where time-out isn’t possible, a delayed time-out when you get home might be the best option. Remember though that immediate consequences usually work better than delayed ones.

Where time-out isn’t possible, a delayed time-out when you get home might be the best option. Remember though that immediate consequences usually work better than delayed ones.

Now you know how to use time-out correctly it’s time to give it a shot. Follow the expert-backed advice above and you’ll be nailing it in no time. You’ve got this.

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Want to learn more?

Movember launched Family Man to improve the confidence and mental health of dads.

Learn how to master time-out and other kick-ass parenting strategies by getting started with Family Man. It’s an interactive parenting video series that's expert-backed and funded by Movember.

If research is your thing take a closer look at the evidence behind Family Man.

Or learn more before diving in.

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