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How should I give my child a time-out?

Deborah R. Gilboa, MD
Family Medicine

Time outs often work well, and they teach our kids 3 important lessons:

  1. The value of taking a break when emotions or behavior get out of control.
  2. The ability to think about a situation and approach it differently.
  3. The importance of following rules.

If your 3 year old throws a tantrum and is put in time out, will she immediately think "Wow, this break is so valuable! Now I can think about the situation and approach it differently. I should follow Mom's rules next time!"  Well, if she does that is really extraordinary! What will happen is that she will, over time, learn these lessons through repetition.

When do time outs make sense?

  1. When child (or parent) is unable to communicate well due to strong emotions.
  2. When a child needs to be removed from a situation and be kept safe - like if he has hit another child on the head with a truck (yes, that happened in our house) and the parent needs a chance to check on the hurt child before addressing the aggressor.
  3. When stopping an activity for a short time is the best way to encourage a child to participate AND follow the rules.

When DON'T time outs make sense?

  1. When separating from the child is unsafe (on the subway, in a grocery store, etc.)
  2. When a child is hurt or scared.
  3. When a time out reinforces the bad behavior instead of correcting it (for example gets them out of a task they did not want to do).

Many experts say that a time out should be as many minutes long as the child is years old. A different way of thinking about that is, the time out should be as long as it takes for the child to calm enough to start to understand the lesson you are trying to teach. However, if that is taking longer than seems reasonable to you, it is a GREAT idea to give empathy during the time out, or stop the time out for some comforting and then starting it up again when the child is calmer.

How can the time out be used?

  1. For the parent or caregiver to calm as well.
  2. To figure out an age-appropriate way to explain to the child what change is needed.

What ages make sense for a time out?

Know your child. Toddlers often understand time-outs starting around age 18-24 months. Around age 8-11 these often stop being effective methods, and kids respond more reliably to one warning and a loss of a privilege for continued misbehavior. 

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.