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!"

But, what happens when time out 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 in order to become independent and self controlled. The lack of discipline in a child's life during the early years often promotes insecurity, dependence, and uncontrolled behavior. Parents have a responsibility to gradually help children gain control of their own bodies and actions. Using time out is one way we can help children in this process.

What Are the Benefits?

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.

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, calm down, and think rationally. 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 the parent an opportunity to gain control and handle the situation wisely.

How Can Time Out Be Used Effectively?

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 don't 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. 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."
  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. The child's room is usually not an effective time out area.
  4. Discuss the reasons for "time out." Ask, "Do you know why you were put in time out?" If the child can't tell you, explain why the behavior is unacceptable. Asking the child to explain assures you that the connection has been made.
  5. Leave the child alone to think. The time frame should reflect the behavior and the visible effectiveness. Many resources suggest formulas based on age and number of minutes. With this rationale, a child that sticks out his tongue would get the same consequence as a child that 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.
  6. Provide reassurance. Before you allow the child to resume his activities, assure that the behavior does not change your feelings for him. 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.

When Is Time Out Ineffective?

As with any method, time out loses its effectiveness when it is overused. Use it carefully and thoughtfully.

Other instances that weaken the impact of time out include:

  1. When the child doesn't understand why they are in time out. If the child doesn't know what behavior caused him to be in the time out area, he is likely to repeat the behavior. It takes time, but it is important to ask the child to explain what he did wrong and why it is not acceptable. If children don't understand what behavior caused them to be in time out, they are very 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 eliminate inappropriate behavior.

What Situations May Pose More Difficulty?

By now you've hopefully got a pretty 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, what if the child refuses to go to the time out area? Physically take him. This can be done in a controlled, yet firm manner. Calmly explain to the child where he is going and why. If it is presented as an option, the child will probably opt to continue in his behavior and will quickly realize that he has control over the parent.

Once the child is brought to the time out area, he 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; 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 wish to restrain the child by holding him.

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 may immediately look to the parent for forgiveness and reassurance. Explain to the child that because you love him so much, you can't let him hurt himself and 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 put him in 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.

What If the Behavior Continues?

Some children may repeat the same behavior soon after the time out experience. In this case, ask the child if he remembers what happened the last time he behaved that way. If he doesn't remember, remind him, 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 the behavior.

It is important to remember that the behaviors we observe in children are the outward manifestations 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 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, helps children build positive behaviors, allowing them to become independent and self-disciplined.