When Time Out Does and Doesn't Work

The purpose of discipline is to guide children toward acceptable and appropriate behavior so they can learn to control their own actions. Discipline helps a child become independent and self controlled. On the other hand, a lack of discipline in a child's life during the early years can promote insecurity, dependence, and uncontrolled behavior. Using time out is one way we can help children in this process.

If used properly, time out can be an effective tool to help your child understand why certain behaviors are not acceptable and guide your child to proper behavior. But, like many methods, it has its good and bad points. Take a few minutes to understand the good and bad of time out as discipline.

Benefits of Time Out

Ben, age 5, and Megan, age 3, are playing together in the playroom. Megan decides to feed the goldfish. She carefully pushes a chair in front of the fish tank and is about to sprinkle the food into the tank when Ben discovers her mission. He throws down his book, runs toward Megan, and pushes her off the chair, yelling, "No! I want to feed the fish!" The mom, whose attention is captured by Ben's yelling, sees Megan being pushed off the chair. Her immediate response is, "Time Out!"

Why is time out a good thing? For one thing, it helps a child gain control. Young children are learning to express their emotions with words instead of their bodies. Therefore, when they become excited, anxious, angry, or fearful, it is difficult for them to control themselves. A time out gives your child a chance to calm down and avoid escalation.

Time out also underscores the relationship between behavior and consequences. Discipline is about guiding children into acceptable and desirable behavior. Time outs give them an opportunity to make the connection between the behavior and the negative consequence.

Finally, time out is not just for kids—it can also be a saving grace for parents. Time outs allow the parent to relax and think without interruptions. Ideally, a parent should not discipline when they are frustrated and angry. But much like a child, adults often struggle to control their emotions. A break in the interaction gives parents an opportunity to gain control and handle the situation wisely.

Using Time Out Effectively

Time outs can be more effective than physical discipline if used properly. Here are some tips on the best ways to use time out:

  1. Begin at an early age (age 2 or 3). Consistency is an important element in guiding a child toward acceptable and desirable behavior. Children are capable of making connections between action and reaction at 4-5 months of age, but limitations in other areas of their development do not allow them to control their actions. However, 2-3 year olds are beginning to be able to control more of their behaviors. Beginning early helps to prevent the child from having to unlearn poor behavior.
  2. Calmly take your child to the time out area. Avoid giving your child multiple warnings before taking your child to the time out area. Physically directing children to the time out area by taking their hand or carrying them communicates clearly who is in control. This is the ideal time to explain in a calm and loving manner why their behavior is unacceptable. For instance, you could say, "Ben, you need to sit in time out because you hurt your sister by pushing her off the chair." A child that tries to leave the time-out area should be calmly returned to it.
  3. Make sure the time out area is free of distractions and is visible to you. The child needs to focus on the behavior that resulted in the time out and not on the activity around him. You can better assess the effectiveness if you can observe the child's reaction and behavior. Do not talk to your child during this time or allow your child to have access to toys, books, or electronics. The child's room is usually not an effective time out area.
  4. Discuss the reasons for time out. When you child is ready to listen ask, "Do you know why you were put in time out?" Children need to understand why they are in time out. One way is to ask. If the child cannot tell you, then explain why the behavior is unacceptable. Asking the child to explain assures you that the connection has been made.
  5. Set a time limit and leave the child alone to think. The time frame should reflect the behavior, the time needed to calm down, and the visible effectiveness. Many resources suggest formulas based on age and number of minutes. With this rationale, a child who sticks out his tongue would get the same consequence as a child who plays with matches. Some children regret their actions on the way to the time out area, while others need time to think about their actions before they understand why it brought such a consequence. Your judgement is the best way to determine the duration of time out.
  6. Provide reassurance. Before you allow the child to resume his or her activities, assure him or her that the behavior does not change your feelings for them. Children need to hear that you love them in spite of their behavior. A smile, hug, kiss, or one-on-one attention are just a few ways this can be accomplished.

Why Time Out Can Be Ineffective

As with any method, time out loses its effectiveness when it is overused or not used correctly. Use it carefully and thoughtfully. It is important to remember that time outs do not solve the problem. They can just help everyone get to a calm place before talking about the problem. Here are some other things that may weaken the effect of a time out:

  1. When the child does not understand why they are in time out. If the child does not know what behavior lead to the time out, then he or she is likely to repeat the behavior. It takes time, but it is important to ask the child to explain the error and why it is not acceptable. If children do not understand what behavior caused them to be in time out, they are likely to repeat the behavior.
  2. When it is not viewed as a negative consequence. Some children do not view time out as a negative consequence. Therefore, it will not be effective in stopping the behavior. You may want to first try altering the location or the amount of time. Otherwise, you may need to choose something that you know the child will definitely view as a negative consequence.
  3. When it is the only way to get attention. Children will opt for negative attention before they will settle for a lack of attention. In some cases, simply spending more time with your child can reduce inappropriate behavior. Also, responding to positive behaviors will reduce the need for negative attention seeking behavior.
  4. Age of the child. Keep in mind that children do not process information the same as adults do. Often, a child under the age of 7 years may not understand and reflect on why they are being punished.

If you have a child with autism, time out may not be an effective discipline tool. Traditional methods of discipline that use negative reinforcement often make behaviors worse and increase tension. Consider reinforcing positive behaviors to decrease behavioral problems over time.

Situations to be Aware of

By now, you likely have a good idea of how and when to use time out as an effective way of changing behavior. But sometimes, situations arise that may not be easy to handle.

For instance, the may child refuse to go to the time out area. Physically taking your child there can be done in a controlled, yet firm manner. Calmly explain to the child where he or she is going and why. If it is presented as an option, the child will probably opt to continue in the behavior and will quickly realize that he or she has control over the parent.

After the child is brought to the time out area, he or she may not stay there. In these cases, the area you have selected may be too broad. For example, a chair is better than a sofa and a corner is better than a room. Standing behind, but close to the child may help to discourage freedom to move about. You may also want to restrain the child by gently holding him or her.

Your child may also continue to be angry or tantrum. Since time out is partially an opportunity to gain control, you may not want to start timing until they begin to calm down.

Another difficulty that may arise, particularly in sensitive children, is a need for extra affection and physical comforting. A sensitive child does not want to disappoint his parents, so he or she may immediately look to the parent for forgiveness and reassurance. Explain to the child that your love includes you to making sure that he or she does not get hurt or hurt others. Continue with the effective time out routine and follow-up with lots of love.

Even if the child apologizes and begs you to not go to time out, it is best not to change your mind. Accept and thank the child for the apology, then carry through with the consequence. Changing the consequence encourages manipulation.

Is the child trying to get your attention while in the time out area? Move further away so you are less distracted. When the time out period is over, give the child your full attention.

Repeat Behavior

Some children may repeat the same behavior soon after the time out. In this case, ask the child if he or she remembers what happened the last time. If the child doesn't remember, provide a reminder, then follow through with the time out routine. Again, evaluate why the technique may not have been effective and then alter it accordingly. If the behavior continues, take a closer look at what may be causing it.

It is important to remember that the behaviors we observe in children are the outward actions of their inner thoughts. Therefore, as a parent you should concern yourself with what is observable as well as what is not observable. What caused the behavior that resulted in the need for time out? Sometimes, something as simple as changing the environment, being sure the child's needs are met, or communicating appropriate expectations can prevent the same behavior from happening again.

Ultimately, incorporating time out, as well as other positive discipline techniques, can help children build positive behaviors, allowing them to become independent and self-disciplined.


Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics

Kids Health—Nemours Foundation


Health Canada

Parenting Today


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Last reviewed October 2016 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 1/26/2017