Health Notes

Time-Out: Are We Doing It Right?

by Dr. Elizabeth Walenz on February 14, 2017

A recent study in the Academy of Pediatrics found that three quarters of parents surveyed used time-outs to help to manage their child’s misbehavior. It also found that the vast majority did it wrong.

It’s something I see in my Methodist Physicians Clinic pediatrics office as well. During well-checks, we discuss a child’s behavior. Parents often say, “Time-out just doesn’t seem to work for my child.”

It’s true. Time-out does not work for all children, but the problem may also lie in implementing time-out correctly.

What is time-out?
Time-out is a method of discipline based on removing positive reinforcement such as social attention and access to physical objects. It can be used to correct a child’s aggression (i.e. hitting, biting), not listening or following directions, or other negative behaviors.

Who is time-out good for?
Ideally, time-out is appropriate for the preschool age group. However, time-out can be used in toddlers and can be modified for older school age kids and teens. At times, parents may also want to take a time-out.

Dr. Elizabeth Walenz
Elizabeth Walenz, MD

How to use it?
Give one warning and a short reason for time-out (i.e. no hitting). If a parent uses multiple warnings, the child may continue the behavior, seeing only empty warnings and no follow-through. Keep it simple with just one warning.

Time out should take place in an environment free of other people, toys, games and books. Choose a chair in the corner, a staircase, a hallway outside the bathroom at a restaurant. Children are easily distracted. If a child is placed in his room for time-out, but his room has his favorite toys, he will begin to play and will forget why he was in his room in the first place. The message of discipline will be lost.

How long?
We often consider time-out length to be the time of the child’s age plus one. For example, a two year-old child would have a three minute time out. Utilize a timer so the child knows when the timer goes off, the time-out is over.

I have found that if a child is throwing a tantrum or fit, it is best that the time out last the length of the tantrum. Once the child is finished, time-out may end. This may be five minutes, this may be 10 minutes. If the timer goes off, but the child is still crying or screaming, let him work through his tantrum, making sure he is in a safe space.

What if they “escape?”
Invariably, a child will try to “escape” time out. If a child comes out of time-out before he is finished, the parent should gently lead him back to the time-out space and restart the clock. This is not the time to counsel the child on his behavior. Minimal distractions and minimal social interaction are the key to time-out. In a young toddler, a pack and play or the child’s crib may be a good spot for time-out to keep him in one spot and safe.

What about time-out for parents?
There are times that a parent may have increasing frustration that can lead to the brink of an emotional outburst. It is best to address your child calmly with time-out, giving the simple one warning, taking them to time out and setting the timer. However, if you as the parent feel you have had it “up to here”… take a time-out. Make sure your children are in a safe place, then sit in your bedroom or on your front porch for a few moments to get back to a state of calm.

Most importantly – be consistent!

If a young girl hits her brother, but does not always have to go to time-out, she gets a mixed message about whether the behavior is acceptable. It is important to let the girl know that every time she hits, it is unacceptable, and she will go to time-out.

Time-out can be very effective if used correctly to help to address misbehavior. Kids sometimes misbehave just to get extra attention. The important thing is to praise good behavior by spending time with your children and giving them lots of love. Let them know the rules and your expectations as well.

If you have trouble with behaviors in your child, don’t hesitate to discuss with your Methodist Physicians Clinic pediatrician.

Dr. Elizabeth Walenz is a pediatrician now seeing patients at
Methodist Physicians Clinic Regency.
Contact Dr. Walenz at
Dr. Elizabeth Walenz


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: