Chances are most time-outs in your house aren’t nearly as serene as this picture of a toddler staring serenely at the wall in the corner of the room. Let’s be clear: administering a time-out is serious business. Even when it is executed correctly — with firmness, clarity, and kindness — no child wants to be on the receiving end of a time-out. A full-blown, out-of-control freak-out is precisely what parents should expect to witness from their children whenever and wherever discipline (which, we have learned, is not the same as punishment) is meted out.
Giving a time-out is by far the most effective way to enforce boundaries of behavior when lines are crossed. And make no mistake, children purposely cross lines all the time in order to test those boundaries. That’s what kids do, and they’re good at it. Whenever those boundaries (drawn from generally accepted social norms like respect for others, basic decency, and common sense) are violated, a serious consequence must follow.
It is important for parents to agree on and then communicate with clarity what the rules and boundaries for their family will be. Start by writing down your family’s “Rules of 10” — ten behaviors that will always lead to a time-out: No hitting, no slamming doors, no bad or hateful words, no breaking things out of anger, no staying out past curfew… you establish the rules for your family with the focus on hurtful behaviors — and post them in plain sight (attached by a magnet on the refrigerator door, for instance) after explaining the house rules to everyone. (By the way, the “Rules of 10” list also applies to the adults in the house. Not being able to rein in a hot temper or an intemperate tongue will land you in time-out, as well it should.)
It is okay to warn your child if you see the unwanted behavior rearing its ugly head and remind them of the house rules and the risk of incurring a time-out. Once you decide a time-out is in order, however, there are no more warnings. Here are three easy steps to administer an effective time-out:
First, always explain to your child what rule they have broken and why the rule exists, using ten words or less, speaking firmly without raising your voice: “No hitting, that hurts” or “We don’t use those words, they hurt people” or “Don’t throw food on the floor, it makes me sad” or “Don’t sigh and roll your eyes at me, that’s disrespectful.”
The next step in administering an effective time out is completely up to you but involves separating your child from the offending situation and from you (and everyone else). This step, in which no words are spoken, is mostly age-dependent: a young toddler isn’t going to sit quietly in a chair in the corner of a room for the prescribed time period (generally one minute per year of age) any more than your tween or teen will. The message you are sending to your misbehaving child (again, without saying a word) is not unlike the message society sends to people who have broken the law: “You have broken the law (house rules) and you need to be put away (separated from the rest of us) until you have calmed down/come to your senses and are ready to join the rest of us law-abiding family members without breaking the law again (get out of jail).” If your child will sit in a chair in the corner, or on the bottom step of your staircase, that’s great, but there should be no interaction with anyone during the time-out — emphasizing the “solitary” but not so much the “confinement.” In the AAP’s version of “How to Give a Time-Out,” this alone-time should take place in a quiet area, “like the corner of a room, not the bedroom or a play room.” Practically speaking, however, any area that is quiet and safe is acceptable because the whole point of a time-out is separation, silence, and time to cool down. As long as your child doesn’t turn on the TV, radio, computer, tablet, or smartphone for the duration of the time-out, that’s fine. If your child decides he can’t sit still in one place and instead chooses to read a book or play with a toy all by himself, that should be permitted. (We should encourage children to not hold their grudges for too long. Instead, let them find positive and creative ways to let go of the anger and sadness they may be feeling. If that means they spend their time-out learning by reading or playing with a toy, good — as long as they do so alone.)
What if your young child has a tantrum while in time-out? As long as there is no danger of harm, ignore it. And what if she leaves her time-out space before the prescribed time is up? The AAP says:
If your child leaves the time out area, have her go back… Restart the timer. Explain that [s]he needs to “stay put” until it’s over.
Well, good luck with that! Remember, you do not want to interact at all with your child during a time-out. You have told her — again, without saying a word (because it would sound mean) — “Get away from me and be by yourself. No one wants to be around you if you are going to misbehave and break the rules. When you calm down and decide to follow the rules, then you can join me again.” (I can’t stress enough how profound this message is to most children who, in fact, almost always strive to please their parents.) So if your son or daughter leaves their time-out area looking for you, try to ignore them for a minute or two (if you can) and then go to the next step (below) and end the time-out. If the kids are a bit older, the AAP suggests not using a timer:
With children who are at least 3 years old, parents can try letting their children lead their own time-out. You can just say, “Go to time out and come back when you feel ready and in control.” This can take the place of the timer and help the child learn and practice self-management skills. This strategy also works well for older children and teens.
Hug or hold your child with affection and speak to them directly and kindly. Explain why they were in time-out (which “Rule of 10” was broken), why the time-out ended (they cooled off and decided to not break that rule again), and what it will take for them to go back into time-out (the misbehavior occurs again).
That’s all it takes. There isn’t a lot of speaking from the parent during an effective time-out and there is no negotiating, either. Be firm but also be kind, and remember that it’s okay if you need to take a time-out yourself:
Correcting a child’s behavior can be hard and, sometimes, frustrating. If you start to feel stressed or out of control, you can take a time-out for yourself. First make sure your child is in a safe place, like a playpen, crib, or bedroom. Then, do something you find relaxing, like listening to music, reading or meditation. When you feel calm, go hug your child and start fresh.
The AAP offers more age-appropriate guidelines for discipline here.