Time-out: a user’s guide

Here’s a question from Gretchen: “My 17 month old has been scratching, hitting my face, and pulling my hair whenever he is frustrated. This behavior has been going on for about a month. He does not behave this way with his father but does occasionally with his grandmother. I’ve tried saying “NO” firmly, timeouts, even slapping his hand. My gut feeling is that timeout is the best way to go but sometimes is not possible, for example, when I am picking him up to change his diaper which he hates. He is clearly acting out because he doesn’t want me to change his diaper but it needs to be done and a timeout will prevent me from changing him. Do you have any suggestions as to how to stop this before it gets any worse?”

A previous post based on a similar question was about how to stop a toddler from hitting. Rather than repeat that material, I’m going to use this question to talk about one method of punishment for children, the time-out.

“Time-out never works!”

I hear that all the time. Yet, when it’s done correctly, time-out can be a very effective tool for teaching improved behavior for children. Unfortunately, parents seldom get a good chance to learn how to use time-out the right way, and how to make a time-out work. Here’s what you need to know.

Time-out is meant for toddlers and young children, not for older kids or teens. It won’t work if they’re used too frequently, and it won’t work if you try to use time-outs for every behavior problem. It’s best to choose one behavior at a time that you’re trying to stop. In Gretchen’s example, she could choose stopping the hitting as her one goal to work on at first.

As with all punishments, time-outs should not be “warned” or threatened. If your child has crossed the line and deserves a time-out, do it—don’t talk about it, don’t threaten it, don’t act like you’re going to do it and then back off. If you haven’t got the time or energy to punish your child for the behavior, it’s better to ignore it than to do a meek or half-hearted attempt. Be the boss. Make it so.

Time-outs should not be accompanied by talking, explaining, or rehashing. If your child hits, say the rule in two words: “No hitting.” Say this forcefully, and only once. You can use a mean face, but don’t scream and don’t lose control. Then pick up the child and put him in the closest corner, facing away from you. You might have to hold him there. Alternatively, for a younger child, you can hold her in the air facing away from you, perhaps balanced on your knee. The child should not be able to see your face. Don’t say anything else.

After an appropriate time (say, 2 minutes for a toddler), turn the child around to face you. Repeat the rule, once, with love in your voice, and give the child a hug. Don’t stay mad. Show with body language that the time-out is over, and that the child is welcome back into the family.

The most common reasons time-out doesn’t work:

· They’re threatened and warned rather than just done. Every time you threaten, your child is learning that your rules can be ignored, most of the time.

· They’re accompanied by too much talking and explaining.

· They’re used too often, or almost continuously. For a time-out to work, the child has to be in “time-in” most of the time. That way time-out feels very different, and unpleasant, and even a little scary.

Time-outs work very well when paired with a reward for improved behavior. For instance, let’s say your child has developed a habit of grabbing toys away from other children. To fix this, you can both start doing time-outs when grabbing occurs, but also give positive, tangible reinforcement when the child shares nicely.

To teach your child to behave requires more than effective punishments—in fact, especially for younger children, punishments should be the least-used technique. More important tools include love, consistency, clarity, modeling, and positive reinforcement. For more about these important ways to help your child learn, see the chapters on discipline in my book, Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool.

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3 Comments on “Time-out: a user’s guide”

  1. meredith Says:

    My daughter was a biter around the same age (she’s 26 months now). I did the “corner” punishment after she bit me a few times and within a week or 10 days it was over. I think I’m going to have to use that technique again because there are some “terrible two’s” issues I am dealing with now! It never ends! HA HA


  2. Gretchen Says:

    Thanks for the helpful information, Dr. Roy. I have just one follow-up question –
    say I work on the hitting as my first goal, what should my response be when my son exhibits the other negative behaviors (e.g., scratching)?


  3. Dr. Roy Says:

    Gretchen, I’d consider all “aggressive behavior”– biting, scratching, hitting, kicking– the same thing, and tackle all of them at once. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.


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