Michael J. Prince, B.A., Psychology


Discipline: Time Outs


Employing the strategy effectively by Andrew Peterson

Most people know that time out is a alternative to spanking which involves sending a misbehaving child out of the room. But when it gets right down to it, many parents have questions about the specific details of this popular discipline technique.

When do you start? What do you say? What do you do?

There are many descriptions of the time out technique, but the one I've drawn on here is Lynn Clark's book SOS! Help for Parents (1985, Parents Press), which gives a detailed description of how to start using time out with your children, including a variety of specific examples of possible situations.


So What Exactly Is Time Out, Anyway?

Time out is a brief interruption in a child's activities, a time out from reinforcement, rewards, and attention. As Lynn Clark describes it, "you quickly remove your child from the reinforcing or pleasurable situation in which his misbehavior occurs and briefly place him in a quiet and boring area which is not reinforcing or enjoyable at all."

At What Age Can I Use Time Out?

Simple versions of time out can be used with children as young as two years old. And it can be used with children as old as twelve. For teenagers, other consequences for misbehavior - such as the loss of privileges - are more appropriate.

How Do I Get Started?

First, select one or two target behaviors that you want decreased. Keep in mind that time out is a method which can be used to stop misbehavior - it's not a method that will work when you want your child to start doing something, like cleaning their room.

Next, pick a boring place for the time out to happen, like the bathroom or the laundry room. For very young children, you'll want to use a time out chair that's in a dull corner of the room. Don't pick a place that scares them, like a cellar or a dark closet. But don't use a place that they like either, like their own bedroom.

Then explain time out to your child. Tell them specifically what the rules are and specifically what the consequence will be if they break them. Don't worry if they don't seem to get it or if they look at you like you're crazy - they'll get the point soon enough when you start enforcing it.

Finally, sit back and wait for your child to break the rule. Have a portable timer ready and when they misbehave, spring into action, remembering a few basic guidelines:

Make your point in ten words or less. Tell them what they did wrong and instruct them to go to time out. If a child hits another child, for instance, all you need to say is this: "No hitting. You're in time out, right now."

Get the child into time out within ten seconds of the misbehavior. In order to have the most impact on a child, consequences need to follow immediately after the misbehavior.

Give your child 1-2 minutes of time out for each year of age. Set the timer out of reach of your child but within hearing range. While your child is in time out, avoid giving them any attention at all. Don't argue with them or lecture them. Don't respond to their questions or complaints. Ignore them.

When the timer goes off, the child is free to leave the time out room. But first they must come to you and tell you what the rule was that caused them to be sent to time out.

There are variations on this formula. For instance, some writers suggest higher or lower amounts of time for the children to be put in time out. And there is a debate over whether or not the child needs to be quiet while they are in time out.

But the basic technique is the same. The bottom line is that if you make a plan and stick to it, it will work. Just be sure to remember the key element in any discipline program: consistency. Once you have established an appropriate consequence for misbehavior, don't give in to your child's protests. If you do, your children will learn that they can get what they want if they protest loudly or long enough. By giving in on a rule you have established, you are all but guaranteeing that the misbehavior will continue.

So, Does Time Out Work?

Absolutely - for most kids, most of the time, when it's used correctly. If you use it consistently and with appropriate expectations, you'll find that time out is a great alternative to spanking your kids, one that really works!