What is time-out? Parents disagree.

In a recent study, Andrew Riley and colleagues surveyed over 400 parents of one- to 10-year-olds and found that more than three quarters of them used time-out—but their motivations and implementation varied a great deal.

Some use it when they can’t stand their children crying or squabbling anymore—when, in other words, it’s the parent who needs a break. Others take it to a furiously punitive extreme: “Stop pounding the table or I’ll never let you leave your room!” Still other parents frame it as a time for the child to settle down. In many cases, the time-out is a last resort, when other measures have failed; sometimes, it’s the go-to response to any rule-breaking behavior.

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Thus, it’s not surprising that time-out is a source of mixed feelings and misunderstanding. A 2014 study by Amy Drayton and colleagues found that time-out guidance on the Internet, including from respected sources, was mostly incomplete or inaccurate. In a recent research review, Anil Chacko and colleagues found that half of parents of kids who would most likely benefit from time-out training either didn’t attend or dropped out.

In another recent study, Drayton and colleagues found that only two of 58 moms of two- to 12-year-olds described time-out in a way consistent with the science behind it: “removal of the child from a reinforcing environment and placing the child in a less reinforcing environment to decrease undesired behavior” (more on this below). Instead, they found half of moms believed the purpose of time-out was to “think” or “calm down.”

These findings might explain why some parents—not to mention their kids!—are frustrated with time-outs. Part of the problem, as this research suggests, is that parents aren’t considering time-outs in the context of other measures to encourage prosocial behavior or emotional regulation. Effective time-outs need a well-thought-out plan and commitment to consistency. Parents decide in advance what behaviors meet time-out criteria and talk about it with kids outside of time-out.

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So, what can parents do to make time-out effective? In the same study, Riley and colleagues compiled six key ingredients from research on time-out.

1. Use time-out in conjunction with time-in

Time-in is the experience kids have that makes it more likely that they’ll continue doing what they’re doing—positive reinforcement. Examples of positive reinforcement are attention, praise, and access to privileges when kids do the opposite of what usually gets them in time-out. Riley and colleagues explain that “time-in…is essential to effectiveness, and [time-out] is only recommended in combination with positive reinforcement strategies.” In contrast, time-out has little or, better yet, no positive reinforcement—it’s time-out from positive reinforcement. An abundance of positive interactions and experiences is the aim for making time-in distinct from time-out. Investing in time-in minimizes the need for time-out.

2. Make time-out immediate and consistent

Time-outs are effective when they immediately and consistently follow a behavior. What does that look like? For example, if in one moment a kid hits the family dog, then an effective time-out follows in the next moment—rather than five minutes later— every time it happens and without multiple warnings.

3. Make it boring

Time-out is a boring time located away from fun or attention. Anything entertaining and engaging—toys, games, parents’ unintentional negative attention—is removed from the setting. 

4. Set a timer and make it brief

Time-out of a set time as short as two minutes is effective; longer durations usually don’t work any better, especially for young kids. Parents in the study by Riley and colleagues whose time-outs were of a set duration reported more effective time-outs than parents who did not.

5. You decide when it’s over

Parents, not kids, end time-outs. Riley and colleagues found that parents who required their kids were calm before the end of time-out reported more effective time-outs than parents who did not have this requirement.

6. Have a back-up plan

Riley and colleagues note that because kids may try to leave time-out before parents tell them it’s over, parents should be ready with a plan B. They recommend returning kids back to time-out or taking away privileges as a consequence. Parents in Riley and colleagues’ study who told their kids to go back to time-out if they left early reported more effective time-outs than parents who did not follow through.

What do effective time-outs look like?

Let’s take an example: hitting the family dog. Immediately and consistently, you should calmly and authoritatively say, “Time-out for hitting,” and direct the kid to a quiet, boring location away from others and toys. Be ready to pull out plan B just in case. After two minutes, say, “Your time-out is over.” At that point, the kid returns to time-in, with positive reinforcement: “I really like how you’re being gentle with Fido!” Analyze time-in to ensure that it’s filled with positive attention and experiences when kids are following rules. Apart from time-out, scrutinize the circumstances that precede and follow a behavior that contribute to the problem and adjust them in light of kids’ developmental expectations.

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