Information on Using Time-Out — Part II


One key to using time-out effectively is knowing your child well. Here’s the parent homework assignment from “How to Listen so Kids will Talk and Talk so Kids will Listen.”

Parent Homework Assignment 9-4

Following the Rules for a New-and-Improved Timeout from Reinforcement

Most parents use timeout like punishment, but punishment and timeout are really two different parenting techniques. Timeout is a less-aversive and more compassionate alternative to punishment.

  • Punishment is the application of something aversive or painful (spanking or scolding).
  • Timeout is the taking away of something positive (children are removed from opportunities to have fun or receive positive reinforcement). 

The differences between punishment and timeout are subtle but important. When using timeout from reinforcement properly, children should be calmly taken from their usually rich and rewarding environment, but they should not be punished through pinching, squeezing, slapping, scolding, or yelling.

There are two main types of timeout: behavioral timeouts and emotional timeouts. Behavioral timeouts are used in response to inappropriate misbehavior. Emotional timeouts are used to help with emotional de-escalation or calming.

Tips for Behavioral Timeouts

  • Timeout effectiveness is based on how much fun and good stuff is happening during time-in. If your child has lots of fun during time-in, timeout will be powerful
  • Timeout should be used in a boring and matter-of-fact manner. Avoid yelling and lecturing.
  • The first minute (or two) of timeout is the most important. Don’t extend timeout beyond 10 minutes.
  • There should be no pushing, holding down, or aggressive touch during timeout. Timeout is not a physical intervention.
  • Don’t use timeout as “thinking time” or demand an apology from your child at the end.
  • Don’t do more than about two timeouts a day or continually threaten timeout.
  • Teach your child about timeout through practice or rehearsals.
  • Praise your child for going to timeout.
  • Practice, simulate, discuss, and educate your child about what behaviors cause a timeout.
  • Praise your child for completing his or her timeout.
  • Stay quiet during your child’s timeout.

A behavioral timeout is used immediately after your child has misbehaved. When misbehavior happens, consider saying: “Uh-oh. That’s not okay. You need to go to timeout.” The timeout location should be a chair or pillow or other location where your child can be separated from the social or family activity. Maintain silence (other than praising your child for going to timeout). Set a timer for between 1 and 10 minutes. Two minutes is appropriate for most children. If your child refuses to go to timeout, don’t get physical; simply shift the consequence to something you can control (e.g., turn off the television or computer, send the friend home, end the family outing, assign a “when you/then you” chore, etc.). If you’ve rehearsed your timeout procedure, it should go smoothly. When timeout is finished, praise your child for completing the timeout and verbally release him or her. Explain the reason for timeout as needed.

Your child shouldn’t be required to say silent during timeout. Many parents incorrectly assume that timeout should continue until children calm down. Calming down and completing a timeout are two different issues. If your child is angry or crying, a consequence has already been delivered and so there’s no need to continue the scene until he or she is quiet. If your goal is a quiet child, timeout may not be the appropriate consequence. Instead, you may need to implement a quiet time in the child’s room or remove him or her from a social or public situation.

Tips for Emotional Timeouts

If your child has trouble calming down after one or two minutes, you may need to approach and comfort him or her. This is okay. After one or two minutes you can release your child from timeout. At that point, the behavioral timeout has ended and an emotional timeout may begin. 

During an emotional timeout children need soothing and comforting. They still may be angry or upset about not getting what they wanted and you shouldn’t give in and give them their desired outcome. Instead, give empathy, comfort, and support. Life is hard and most adults don’t like not getting what they want, either. Help them know this. Help them breathe deeply and think about happier times. Help them move past their distress and into a calmer and more comfortable place. This can be a powerful and positive experience for both parent and child. Behavioral timeouts are about limit-setting. Emotional timeouts are about parent–child bonding and emotional regulation.

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Time-in should always be more fun than time-out!

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