How to Use Time-Out

How to Use Time-Out

The “time-out” has become a parenting staple in our culture. It is commonly used to give children a chance to think about their misbehavior in the hope that they will reflect on their actions and determine not to repeat them in the future. That’s the theory. In practice, however, the time-out amounts to little more than a punishment for bad behavior. It’s very similar to the old fashioned “dunce cap” routine.

It is certainly true that children need to learn self-control in general, and particularly in relation to expression of their anger – how to use their words instead of their hands or feet. They learn this best by watching their parents, who are always modeling for them.

It is also true that children need to learn right behavior, or how to behave properly. Parents know what proper behavior is for a child, and in the course of an ordinary day they find many occasions to tell their children what that is.

Questions about Time-Out

But is the use of a time-out the best way to teach these things to a young child? Is it realistic to think that a toddler or youngster four to eight years old is going to use the time out when she’s angry to reflect on her behavior the way the parent hopes she will? In this sense, is the time-out effective? From a somewhat different perspective, is the time-out practical? Can it be enforced if the angry, strong-willed child refuses to conform to the parent’s demand to sit on the “naughty step” or go to her room?

My answer to all these questions is, No, not necessarily. I’ve heard too many parents in my classes and coaching sessions complain that time-outs do not work. Time-outs too often become the focus of yet another parent-child power struggle, with the child defiantly refusing to accept temporary isolation as a means to reflect on their wrong-doing.

In effect, the time-out is a punishment that parents administer because they simply do not know what else to do.

Now, it is true that many parenting authors and child behavior experts recommend time-outs, and some come up with detailed formulations about how to use them. It is also true that time-outs are effective with some children. At least to the extent that the child accepts the time-out as a punishment that may be appropriate and deserved. So I can’t say that time-outs are necessarily a bad thing, but I can say that they are too often ineffective.

Time-outs are ineffective when the young child or toddler is not capable of the kind of introspection that the parent hopes she is. Time-outs are ineffective when the angry child uses them to force another confrontation with the parent that she (child) knows the parent cannot win because the isolation requires the child’s decision to conform. And they are not effective when the child, even if conforming with it, responds to it with resentment toward the parent in addition to the original frustration that motivated her misbehavior in the first place–say, her younger brother taking her toy. She now has two problems instead of one: her brother and her parent. The parent is now her enemy, not her ally, and the stage is getting set for “payback,” especially if this (for her) meaningless punishment is inflicted repeatedly.

A Better Way

It is quite natural (though not ideal) that a parent will become angry when the child misbehaves. It is also quite natural (though not ideal) that a parent will inflict, and justify, some form of punishment as an attempt to correct unacceptable child behavior. It is my conviction, however, that the problem with punishment is that it is not only a primitive, Old School way of dealing with UCBs, but that it teaches the wrong lessons. This makes time-outs an inadequate form of discipline.

If the parent wishes to teach the child how to properly handle angry feelings (say, by learning to use self-control instead of aggression when angry) then there is one highly effective way to teach that. And that is to model it–often, and consistently. If the parent wishes to teach the child to use only her  words (and not her hands or feet) to express angry feelings, then the parent needs to consistently model that, and not merely talk about it. Actions speak louder than words. And if the parent repeatedly tells the child that using hands or feet is unacceptable (forbidden), and in addition is able to model how this is done, then the child will learn to use words and self-control too, just like mom and dad.

The Parent Takes the Time-Out

What I’m getting at is the parent can best teach the child how to use words by saying them, and how to use self-control by doing it. In other words, the parent takes the time-out in order to control his/her own anger.

Rather than responding to the child’s unacceptable behavior by administering a time-out (perhaps with a healthy dose of anger and/or angry words), the parent should take a time-out whenever s/he starts to get angry with the child (or with the other parent). Believe it or not, this is a highly effective way of teaching children to use their words and to use self-control. I know it’s effective because parents in my classes tell me it is. After seeing mom or dad consistently take a time-out when starting to get angry, the child (without being told to do so) will start doing the same thing. “Mom, I need a time-out.” And then she takes one!

The technique is quite simple to describe, but not as easy to perform in the heat of the moment, when you start getting worked up. Before taking your time-out to cool off and think the situation through and plan your next move, you announce to your child (or spouse) something like the following.

  • “I’m getting angry (upset, irritated, frustrated, etc.). I need a time-out. I’ll be right back.”

Then you walk out and isolate yourself and plan your next move–i.e., what you are going to say when you go back and engage with your child (or spouse). When re-engaging, it’s always good to start off with a brief explanation of why you were getting upset and that you didn’t want to yell, scream, hit, or throw something. You let the child know that you want to be respectful, you want to use your words, and you want to use them when you’re not so upset.

The power of this technique is almost unbelievable. First, it helps you manage emerging tense situations with respect and integrity, with the result of feeling really good about yourself. Second, it empowers you to demonstrate in the best way possible how to exercise self-control and reflection as a means of dealing with anger or frustration. Third, your child, who learns most things by imitating you, will learn to use her words and self-control, too. What better use of time-out could there possibly be?


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

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