Question: What’s the right way to do a time-out when my child misbehaves?

Answer: There aren’t really hard and fast rules about the “right” way to do a time-out, but there are some good guiding principles. The main one being consistency!

During a recent office visit, a child was running around the exam room, pulling latex gloves out of the box and throwing them one-medical-pediatric-care
around, splashing water out of the sink, and just creating general chaos. I heard the mom say, “you’re about to be on time-out” three separate times, but the time-out never actually came. It was a very teachable moment: I encouraged the mom to follow through with the consequence and put the kid on time-out for two minutes. After that, the room-wrecking behavior stopped — the child just needed some structure and limit-setting.

Kids are smart and they’ll pick up on loopholes and contradictions really quickly. If you say you’re going to do something every time your child does a certain behavior, then you actually have to follow through every time they do the behavior.

Another helpful rule of thumb: time-outs should last as many minutes as your child’s age. So if your kid is 5 years old, time-outs should last five minutes. Kids don’t really understand the idea of time-outs until they’re at least 2 to 3-years-old, so there’s no need to start this kind of discipline until then.   

You should also always tell your child why they’re getting a time-out every time you enforce it, and be as specific as possible. Use a short, quick description of what they did. So instead of “you’re getting a time-out because you weren’t behaving in a way that aligns with our family values…,” try, “you’re getting a time-out because you threw a stick at your brother.” The end. Be short, straightforward, and transparent.

If you’re just starting out, the best way to introduce time-outs is to do a practice run. Let your child know that the next time they do a behavior they shouldn’t do (hitting, throwing a tantrum, etc.), they’ll have to have a time-out. You can say that sometimes we all get big emotions, and we need a few minutes to calm down; this is what the time-out is for. Then let them pick the location. Remember, consistency is key, so have them go to the same place for every time-out. It should be somewhere quiet, like in a corner or facing a wall (and obviously not in front of a phone, TV, or computer). Once they pick a spot in the house, say it’s time for a practice run. Make it clear that they’re not in trouble now, but you’re practicing what it feels like to go to the time-out spot so they’ll know what to do when it’s time. If they’re having “big emotions” outside the house and a time-out is in order, you can pick the exact location.

And remember, time-outs go hand-in-hand with time-ins. That means it’s crucial to give your kid as much specific praise as possible. Rather than saying, “you’re a nice girl,” emphasize the details: “you’re being such a nice girl because you cleaned up your toys right away,” or “you’re being a really nice boy for sharing the game with your sister.” With this kind of consistent, positive reinforcement, you’ll hopefully end up having more days full of time-ins than time-outs.