Back to Basics: Timeout

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“Stop that or you will go to timeout! Do you want to go to timeout?” This phrase is often heard coming out of parents’ mouths at home and almost any other place where children can be found. Timeout has gotten into the national vocabulary of parents. In our jobs as a pediatrician and school psychologist, we often ask parents about how their child is disciplined. Timeout is typically the number one answer. However, this is quickly followed up with, “it doesn’t work though.” This leads to the question of how should timeout be implemented?

The first step in using timeout is to focus on a few specific behaviors that you want to eliminate. There may be many behaviors that you would prefer your children didn’t do, but it is best to focus on the top three behaviors when you start using timeout. For example, you may want your children to not; throw objects, throw a tantrum to get their way, and to run in the street. Once you make your list, put it up on the refrigerator and let the children know what happens when they violate the rules

Next, you need to decide on where you want the timeout area to be. The timeout area needs to be isolated but safe, and not scary or dark. An out of the way room such as a washroom is typical though we use a corner in our kitchen for our daughters.

Now that you have the behaviors to focus on and a place to put the child, you need to start focusing on how long to put the child in timeout. The rule is one minute of timeout per year of age of the child. So, if you have a 5 year old, they would be put in timeout for 5 minutes. Thought it is tempting to think, “the longer they stay in, the more effective it will be,” research indicates that extended time in timeout does not make it more effective.

Once everything is set, it is time to explain the timeout procedure to your child. First, tell the child what specific behaviors are unacceptable, like throwing things at people. Then let her know the consequences when she engages in the behavior. When the child breaks a rule, it is time to start timeout. Place the child in timeout and tell her what she did. Then set a timer, preferably one that can be heard by everyone such as a kitchen or microwave timer. During timeout, do not interact with the child for any reason until the time has expired. Do not answer any requests or questions from the child. Do not continue to talk to the child about why they are being punished. Do not respond to crying or screaming by the child as this is their attempt to get to you. Any time the child attempts to leave the timeout area, add one more minute to the total time.

If your child doesn’t want to comply with timeout, tell the child that timeout does not start until she is seated in the timeout chair or in the proper location. Most children will realize that it is easier to just get the timeout over with than to extend it by not obeying.

In order to end timeout, several conditions need to have been met. First, the child must not exhibit the behavior she went there for. Second, the total time must have been completed. Third, the child must tell you what she did before coming out if she is over the age of 5. If she is under the age of 5, you tell her what she did again. If the child refuses to tell you, give her another timeout and add one more minute to the time. Fourth, make sure to catch the child doing something good at the first opportunity. You don’t want her to continue to be punished after timeout or she will begin to feel like it is not worth her time to behave well. You can even go so far as to celebrate her getting out of timeout. Finally, if the child was sent to timeout for refusing to do something, she must do it now.  If an apology needs to be given for something such as hitting, then that should be done immediately after timeout as well.

Those are the basics for timeout. Here are a few final reminders. Make sure to use timeout consistently for the behaviors you decided on. If you use it less over two to three weeks, you will know that it is working. Do not discipline when you are upset or emotional and do not let the behaviors go too far. You can discipline more effectively when calm. Timeout may seem to take more time than other ways of disciplining but if you start early, it can stop behavior problems when the child gets older and everyone will be happier.

This article was published in the Richmond Register Health Beat Magazine in October 2010.