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Guiding Your Child Through The Early Years
Behavior and Development
Master the basics of giving your child a time-out.
InteliHealth Medical Content
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Time-out is a technique that you can use to help discourage unacceptable behavior in your child. It is not a punishment, but a "break" from a difficult situation that has resulted in poor behavior. Time-out helps children regain control of themselves.

Here's how to do it.

Pick a quiet, unappealing spot to use for time-out, away from entertainment or distraction. Don't use your child's bedroom, where there's bound to be lots of toys and books. Pick a place that's away from the action of the household, but still close enough so your child can hear what's going on without her. Place a chair or stool in the time-out area, facing a blank wall or a corner.

Decide in advance which behaviors will be punished with time-out and explain this to your child. Time-out is most useful for aggressive, harmful or disruptive behaviors that cannot be ignored. Practice time-out with your child before using it for the first time.

When your child does something that she knows will result in time-out, tell her calmly "You need a time-out," and have her sit in the chair. Younger children may need to be led to the time-out area. Make sure that the time-out is immediately after the behavior, so that your child understands the cause-and-effect relationship.

Time-out should last approximately one minute for every year of age (for example, two minutes for a 2 year old). You may want to set a kitchen timer for the amount of time needed.

During time-out, your child must not leave the chair. Some children will not stay in the chair for time-out — you can then stand behind the chair and hold the child gently but firmly by the shoulders or sit in the chair yourself and hold the child in your lap for the duration of time-out.

There shouldn't be any discussion about the bad behavior during time-out. If necessary, you can discuss what happened after your child has calmed down and has completed the time-out period.

Time-out works because children want to be part of the action. Taking your child away from the center of attention will make her realize that her behavior was inappropriate and, if repeated, she'll be removed again.

The biggest pitfall in using time-out is overuse. Save time-out for what you think are your child's most problematic behaviors (such as biting, kicking and hitting). Time-out works less well for ongoing behavior problems, like whining or not sharing. Do not use time-out for temper tantrums. These should simply be ignored (unless your child is causing harm to himself or another child). If you are putting your child in time-out several times a day, it loses its impact and stops working.

After time-out is over, let the incident go. In most cases, there need not be any further discussion about the misbehavior. Help your child get back to her activities and look for the first opportunity to praise a positive behavior.

Last updated May 29, 2011

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