Time out is a parenting technique to encourage children to stop doing things that you do not want them to do. When your child misbehaves, you can calmly remove your child from the activity and put them in time out. Your child usually will stop doing the behavior to avoid going into time out. Time out is mostly effective with children, 2 to 12 years old.
Why Does Time Out Work?
When you put children in time out, you show them with action that you do not like their behaviors. It works better than shouting, threatening, or spanking.
Time out removes your child from the behavior. It gives you and your child time to calm down and get control over yourself. Children in time out also have time to think about what they did.
Using Time Out
Pick one or two behaviors you really want to work on with your child. Use time out consistently with these behaviors. Take care not to overuse time out. Only use it for a behavior you really want to stop.
Let children know ahead of time that you will be using time out. For instance, tell them, "Next time you are fighting over toys, everyone is going in a time out for 3 minutes. I will tell you when 3 minutes is up."
Choose a place ahead of time. Make sure it is a boring spot away from the TV and toys. It should not be a place that is dark or scary. If your children are young, make sure you can see them. Some places that might work include:
- A chair in the hallway
- The corner of the room
- The bedroom
- A crib
When children misbehave, give them a warning to stop. Tell them, "No hitting. That hurts. If you don't stop hitting, you will have a time out."
- When children stop misbehaving, praise them for controlling their behavior.
- When children do not stop misbehaving, tell them to go in time out. Only say it once: "Hitting hurts. You need a time out."
Be clear and calm. Do not lose your temper. When you yell and nag, you give your children's bad behavior too much attention.
Some children may go into time out as soon as you tell them to. When children do not go on their own, lead them or carry them to the time out spot. Do not yell or spank on the way to time out.
Put your child in time out for 1 minute per year of age, but no longer than 5 minutes. For example, if your child is 3 years old, time out is for 3 minutes.
Older children can be told they are in time out until they are ready to return to their activity and behave. Because they decide when they are ready, they learn to control their behavior.
If your children do not stay in their time out spots, gently hold them there. Do not talk to them or give them any attention.
If you set a timer and your child makes noise or misbehaves in time out, reset the timer. If the child wanders away, lead the child back to the spot and reset the timer. The child must be quiet and well-behaved until the timer goes off.
When time out is over, let children return to their activities. Do not lecture about the bad behavior. Children eventually get the message with the time out.
Carter RG, Feigelman S. The preschool years. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 24.
Familydoctor.org website. What you can do to change your child's behavior. familydoctor.org/what-you-can-do-to-change-your-childs-behavior. Updated April 7, 2022. Accessed July 20, 2023.
HealthyChildren.org website. What's the best way to discipline my child? www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/Pages/Disciplining-Your-Child.aspx. Updated November 5, 2018. Accessed July 20, 2023.
Review Date 7/1/2023
Updated by: Charles I. Schwartz, MD, FAAP, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, General Pediatrician at PennCare for Kids, Phoenixville, PA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.