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Do Time-Outs Really Work For Kids?

Blog Do Time-Outs Really Work For Kids?

Dr. Jill Fodstad weighs in on whether Time-Outs are effective for kids.


The point of a time out is to give a child (and, often, the parent) a chance to calm down with limited distractions, especially those contributing to their irritability. 

But do time-outs really work? Experts say yes.

“There is a significant amount of research demonstrating the effectiveness of time-outs however, this technique is also one of the most misused and misunderstood,” says Jill Fodstad, Ph.D., Clinical Director at Simon Skjodt Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “If used incorrectly, it can be counter-productive for parents, which can be incredibly frustrating.”  However, if used correctly, time out can be an effective parenting tool. Here, Dr. Fodstad explains how to make time-outs effective.  

Targeting the right age group

First, it’s important that you’re targeting the right age. The core age range for time-outs is toddlers up to age 6. “This is the age range where parent affection and attention are perceived as being extremely important to the child,” says Dr. Fodstad.  If your child is older, a better maneuver may be to deliver logical consequences to the problem behavior (for example, if your older child refuses to turn off the TV when asked, they lose TV privileges).   

What doesn’t work

Parents may find time-outs to be ineffective because they are not structuring them correctly. “For instance, time-out is not a chair, a corner, or any specific area,” says Dr. Fodstad.  “While a time out chair can be useful for a child who needs a predefined space to regain their emotions and cool down, it is not necessary,” says Dr. Fodstad.  “Sitting in a chair is not a hardship, nor should it be treated as such.” She explains that when you yell or tell your child “go to your chair” it can be a reprimand. “The only discomfort a child should be made to feel from a time-out is the withdrawal of your attention, which for this young age range is distressing enough on its own,” says Dr. Fodstad. “No one likes to be ignored – often, simply removing your attention from your child is the most potent consequence the child can be given.”

Likewise, many parents are wedded to the notion that time-out should last one minute for each year of their child’s age. “However, there is no research to support this notion,” says Dr. Fodstad. Instead, she explains, there is research that shows time-outs can be effective in as little as 10 seconds.  “Again, parents need to remember that the purpose of a time-out is to give the child a break from the situation that has overwhelmed him and has resulted in unacceptable behavior,” says Dr. Fodstad. The sooner the child can calm down and get back in charge of their emotions and join the rest of the family, the better. 

Another pitfall that parents often make when using time out is talking too much before, during, and after time outs.  Warnings (such as, “If you do X again, you’ll be sent to time out) can be counterproductive.  Remember a time out means the parent is going to stop interacting with the child– a warning, even if it is meant to give the child the opportunity to make a better decision (which we all hope they will do, but often don’t) is an interaction.  “So if you give them three warnings – each warning is more attention,” she explains. She also notes that many parents are not consistent with time-outs (sometimes they’ll give it for a said behavior sometimes they won’t) or give time-outs for too many behaviors (which can make a child feel they can do nothing right). Lastly, many parents will give their kids a talking to after time-out, which often agitates the child and can start up the bad behavior.

What does work

The best way to make time-outs effective is to decide ahead of time what behavior will lead to a time out.  “Be clear with your child that said behavior will result in a time-out and parents must be consistent with it,” says Dr. Fodstad. 

Dr. Fodstad also recommends keeping the time-out period short. There’s no magic number--instead it’s how long your child takes to calm down. Dr. Fodstad recommends no more than 3 to 5 minutes. “You can tell him, when he’s sitting quietly on his bottom time-out will be over.” Then, as soon as your child is calm, end time-out and redirect them to rejoin back into what is the current activity.  “As soon as your child begins displaying any form of appropriate behavior start to provide them with positive feedback,” she says. “We want to have ‘time in’ be associated with positive attention and interaction.”

Then, sometime later, not directly during or immediately after a time out, go back and discuss with your child why that behavior was not acceptable and what they should have done instead. 

“It’s important to remember that a time-out can be done anywhere regardless of the situation,” says Dr. Fodstad. “Keep it short enough so that your child can reset their behavior, but not long enough that the child either forgets what the time out is for or starts getting into other mischief because they are bored.”

-- By Judy Koutsky  

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