Using Time-Out Effectively

As  parents and caregivers know, times when our children  enter moments of emotional disequilibrium can cause rough spots in our relationship, especially when we are attempting to correct or change their behavior. Recognizing that children typically lack judgment, are impulsive and egocentric, we realize that challenges to parental authority can easily occur. Anger and intense power struggles may escalate. Would a time-out be appropriate and how is one used?

Time-outs are not for punishing

child blows raspberries
To be effective, a time-out should not blame, shame or banish a child.

Many parents use a time-out when children challenge parental authority and they wish to achieve a change in behavior. But are they using a time-out appropriately?

To be effective, it is important that a time-out not be a form of punishment. It should not blame, shame or banish a child (i.e., “you sit in the corner and think about how badly you’ve behaved!”).

I find it interesting that we often think that isolating a child is a good “punishment.” We see isolation used as punishment in schools, homes or other settings where children are cared for or supervised. However, what children truly need most is not punishment or isolation but more relationship and guidance.

Purpose of a time-out

An appropriate use of a time-out gives parents and children the opportunity to calm. It respects the immaturity of a child (and his or her disequalibrium—when the child cycles in and out of control and continues to need an outside force to break that cycle and offer a chance to regroup.) In total, a well used time-out can interrupt destructive or unacceptable behavior, give the child an opportunity to calm, provide safety and control, and enforce rules about safety and respect.

When challenging moments occur, parents should gently but firmly insist a child move away from a situation until sufficiently calmed.

So, when challenging moments occur, parents should gently but firmly insist a child move away from a situation until sufficiently calmed. Time-outs can be for a specified period (we recommend a maximum of one minute for each year of age of a child; i.e, a four-year-old’s maximum time out is four minutes) but the purpose is to help the child calm.

Implementing a time-out

If a parent is calm and clear in implementing the time-out, the child should feel relieved, cared for and  unashamed.  He or she may still act frustrated or angry but will not feel banished, humiliated or overpowered.

Sometimes, in order for the time-out to work, the parent may physically need to stay with the child during the time-out period. The parent’s presence serves to comfort as well as to explain what is needed so the child may return to his or her activities.

A parent may need a time-out, too

And remember that time-outs should not only be for children. Sometimes parents need them. 


Mom and young son
A parent may need a time-out, too

If you as a parent are feeling so angry or frustrated that you think you may lack control of your emotions, it is perfectly acceptable to tell your child that you are taking a time out.

First, make sure the child is protected and safe. Then, go to a neutral place for several minutes, away from the child until you calm. This models great self-control for your kids: you are choosing to take a break rather than do anything that damages your relationship with them.

Another healthy use for a time-out is when parents and children take one together. (“C’mon Juan, we’re both a mess right now. Let’s take a walk and calm down.”) Here, a time-out can be used effectively while promoting healthy ways to handle anger, communicate calmly and clearly, and demonstrate self-control. A together time-out helps maintain a safe and healthy relational and emotional environment for our families.

So, a time-out can be a good thing for both children and parents.

Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Some information taken from Preventing Violence through Effective Discipline, 2006, Diane Wagenhals. Licensed Materials. All rights reserved.

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