Time out is a technique in which a child is removed from activity and forced to sit alone for a few minutes in order to calm down.
The time out has become an increasingly popular method of dealing with children's inappropriate behavior. If a child becomes too aggressive or angry, the parent or caregiver may remove the child from the upsetting situation. Parents may have a special place in the home for time outs: in the child's room, in a certain chair, or on a rug in an out-of-the-way place. The child may be allowed to end the time out when he or she is ready or told to stay in the time-out place for a specific length of time. The time should be very short—one guide suggests a minute for each year of the child's age—as most young children cannot easily comprehend longer time spans.
The time out is not used as a punishment so much as an opportunity for the child to try to regain control of emotions. Some children can accomplish this by themselves, and being removed from a stressful play situation is all that they need. Other children may not be able to recover their equilibrium without help from an adult. The parent or caregiver may ask the child to try to calm down alone in the time-out spot and then give attention only after the child has made some effort.
It should be clear to the child that the time out is not punitive, and a child should not feel humiliated for having a time out. The time-out area should not be a constraining or frightening place, such as a locked closet. The time out should serve to teach the child to manage strong feelings safely, and after he or she has done so, the child should be praised for calming down.
There may be other techniques parents or caregivers can use before a time out becomes necessary. If an activity is too stressful to one or more children, it may be better to end the activity. Changing the situation may restore tempers more readily than a spell of reflection. If children are fighting because they are hungry or tired, then that need should be addressed. Children may benefit most from a time out if the issues of aggression or out-of-control behavior have been discussed at a time when the child was not upset. Although the goal of time out may be to teach the child to take responsibility for controlling his or her own behavior, depending on the age and temperament of the child, this may not be possible without support and comfort from parents or other concerned adults.
Children under three may not be mature enough to comprehend a time out, although for some it may be an effective tool.
Time outs are usually most effective with preschool-age children. If time outs are used in a preschool or daycare situation, parents may want to discuss this with the teachers or caregivers so that time outs can be used consistently in situations at home too. Time outs for this age group should be very brief.
School age children may be more resistant to the concept of time out. It is usually possible to give these children a certain sense of autonomy by having them help choose the time out location (when they are not angry) and allowing them to take themselves there. If they do not comply, this age group often responds well to being grounded until they choose to complete the time out.
Many times children will vocalize their distress while they are in time out. Not insisting that children maintain silence for the completion of time out can be helpful, because it allows children to vent their feelings and makes time out easier to complete successfully. Children who leave time out before time is up can be gently held in place or put in a room while the parent holds the door shut. The room should not contain anything valuable or fragile and should not contain bookshelves or other things that the child may be able to pull and injure him or her self with.
Children are often very vocally adverse to time outs, but time outs have been found to be effective ways of changing behavior in many children. Helping the child understand what behavior caused the time out and what kind of behavior is considered acceptable will help the child change the behavior in the future. Children cannot change their behavior if they do not know what is expected of them. Children's angry behavior, especially during the beginning of a time out, can be embarrassing for the parent, so it may be helpful if the situation arises in a public place to have the time out in a bathroom or in the car while always keeping the child in sight.
When to call the doctor
The doctor should be consulted if the child is very violent to him or herself or others during time out, or if behavior does not improve after time outs have been regularly enforced over a few weeks.
Abbot, Jacob. Gentle Measures. Chester, NY: Anza Classics Library, 2004.
Jenson, William R., et al. The Tough Kind Parent Book: Practical Solutions to Tough Childhood Problems. Longmont, CO: Sopris West, 2003.
Arnoscht, Otto J. "'Time-Out' Guides Children to Productive and Positive Behaviors." The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter 16 (March 2003): 1.
Tish Davidson, A.M. A. Woodward