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Time Out for Kids – Correct Steps and Common Mistakes

Over the last few decades, the use of time out for kids has become an increasingly popular method for dealing with inappropriate behavior in kids.

Here’s the good news about the use of time-outs: It is supported by science as an effective way to correct toddler behavior. The bad news? Most people are doing it wrong.

Should you use Time-Out

Five decades of research show that using time out to discipline is a proven disciplinary technique. But it seems to get a bad rep in the media in recent years.

Some believe that toddler time out punishment is ineffective because they don’t teach children better behavior. Yet, giving time outs for toddlers is still a toddler discipline technique officially recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Why is there a disagreement?

That’s because 85% of parents use time-out incorrectly, and the incorrect usage can hurt children​1​.

A boy standing and facing the wall in time-out.

What is Time Out

Time-out’s full name is time-out from positive reinforcement. It is a procedure in which the child is briefly removed from an environment reinforcing bad behavior and placed in a safe space that is not reinforcing.

Child psychologists invented, tested, and modified this strategy in the 1950s. Throughout the 1960s to 1980s, a large body of research was dedicated to proving that it could stop unwanted behavior ​2​.

Unfortunately, adequate training or correct information is not always available. Most parents rely on other parents, the internet, parenting books, or guesswork. With time, time-out has grown to include improper elements that barely resemble the original method.

Correct steps for time-out

1. Give a warning

The first step is to specify the rule. Tell your child if they perform an undesired behavior, they’ll get a time-out. But if they stop or perform the desired behavior, they’ll get another outcome. Tell them this is the only warning.

2. Go into time-out

Once a warning is given, a timeout must happen immediately if the misbehavior continues. Clearly state the reason. Do not allow a “second chance” or negotiation. Otherwise, escaping the time-out will serve to reinforce the inappropriate behavior.

3. A quiet place for time-out

The time-out space should have little social, sensory, material, toys, or activity reinforcements. Studies show that the more stimulating the time-out place, the less effective it is​3​.

4. Stay in time-out

If the child refuses to stay in the time-out area, gently lead them back. You may have to do this a few times, but be consistent and kind. You can stay by their side to ensure they stay there but do not interact with them.

The idea is to make this place “boring” with no reinforcers. Do not allow interactions, activities, or materials that may become unintended reinforcement.

5. Brief duration (2-5 minutes)

A widespread belief is that the length of time should increase with the child’s age (1 minute per year of age). However, there’s a lack of consistent evidence supporting that claim. Studies show that 2-5 minute time-outs are as effective as longer ones for older children​4–7​.

6. Be quiet and calm before release

Even if the time is up, the child needs to show a few seconds of quiet and calm behavior before being released.

7. Follow the original request

Before ending the time-out, reissue the initial command. The child must follow the instruction to end the time-out procedure so that they will not use time-out to escape a command.

8. Time ins when your child is not in time-out

To prevent the next unacceptable behavior, positive reinforcement is a key ingredient. Pay position attention to good behavior. Provide a home environment full of a close parent-child relationship, positive interactions, and interesting activities. Praise them when you catch them doing good things.

If a child lives in an environment filled with negative interactions, or a lack of affection and fun activities, it won’t make much difference whether a child is put into a time-out or not, and therefore will not be an effective technique in discouraging misbehavior​8​.

Common mistakes

Use time-out to punish

One of the most common misuses of time-out is the focus on using it as a punishment – an unnatural negative consequence imposed on the child to make them feel bad.

Time-out is not intended to be a punishment. It is a behavior modification tool that teaches a child to make good behavioral decisions. The child learns to make a decision that has a certain consequence. Giving a warning every time allows the child a chance to make a good choice.

However, when young children misbehave or throw tantrums, frustrated caregivers often find it difficult to control their own feelings. They use timeouts out of anger to punish.

Time-out becomes a punishment when it’s given with hostility, yelling, intimidating tone of voice, long duration, or humiliation, such as using a naughty chair or standing in a time out corner in front of the whole class. None of these practices teach your child how to behave appropriately.

Using time out chairs for toddlers to shame or humiliate the child is particularly damaging as shame and humiliation are linked to a higher risk for depression later in adolescents​9​.

Not model emotion regulation

Toddlers learn self-regulating and self-control skills through observation and parent-child interactions. Parents who exhibit harsh or hostile emotions when giving time-outs model dysregulated behavior for the child to imitate​10​. So when time-outs are used as punishment, the only things the child learns are feelings of isolation, rejection, and emotional dysregulation.

Rejection and isolation induce relational pains. In brain scans, scientists found that when a child experiences relational pain, the brain areas activated are the same areas activated by physical pain​11​. We know that physical assault, such as corporal punishment, can hurt a developing mind​12​. So, when time-outs are used as punishment, the pain caused can also harm the developing brain.

Tell the child to think about their mistake

Giving time-out is also not about giving the child time to “reflect” or “think about what they did.”

No young kids ever come out of a time-out remorseful or vowing never to misbehave again.

Instead, they are probably more resentful and more determined to avoid getting caught the next time or seek revenge on the person who got them into trouble.

Beware of Internet Guidance

In a 2015 study, Amy Drayton and colleagues surveyed over 100 respected Internet websites. They found that no website included complete and accurate information on using time-out​4​.

This finding is alarming because many parents depend on the Internet for parenting information. Since the publication of that study, several websites have updated their advice and tips in their articles, but many still retain inconsistent or inaccurate information, confirmed by another study in 2018​11​.

When frustrated parents follow incorrect information and do not obtain the desired effect, they may become angrier and resort to harsh methods, such as yelling or physical punishment.

These methods are strongly associated with behavioral problems, such as aggressive behavior, conduct disorder, or oppositional defiance disorder, and internalizing problems, such as anxiety or depression​12–14​.

Final Thoughts

Although, when used appropriately, time out for kids is an effective strategy, it is not an end-all-be-all discipline. Parents need a variety of disciplinary tools for different situations.

Time-outs are also not the best way to deal with certain toddler issues, such as tantrums.

Using distractions to redirect a budding tantrum, modeling appropriate behavior for toddlers to emulate, teaching self-regulation skills to calm big emotions, and using inductive discipline to explain natural consequences are all good alternatives to add to the big bag of parenting tricks.

Is time out effective?

Time out is effective when used correctly. However, research shows that 85% of parents don’t know the correct time out technique, and incorrect usage can harm children.

How long should time out be?

Although 1 minute per year of age is wildly publicized on the Internet, studies show that 2-5 minute time-outs are as effective for older children as longer ones.


  1. 1.
    Riley AR, Wagner DV, Tudor ME, Zuckerman KE, Freeman KA. A Survey of Parents’ Perceptions and Use of Time-out Compared to Empirical Evidence. Academic Pediatrics. Published online March 2017:168-175. doi:10.1016/j.acap.2016.08.004
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    Everett GE, Hupp SDA, Olmi DJ. Time-out with Parents: A Descriptive Analysis of 30 Years of Research. Education and Treatment of Children. 2010;33(2):235-259.
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    BRANTNER JP, DOHERTY MA. A review of timeout: A conceptual and methodological analysis. In: Effects of Punishment on Human Behavior. Academic Press; 1983:87-132.
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    Staats AW. Child Learning, Intelligence, and Personality: Principles of a Behavioral Interaction Approach. Harper & Row; 1971.
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    Corralejo SM, Jensen SA, Greathouse AD, Ward LE. Parameters of Time-out: Research Update and Comparison to Parenting Programs, Books, and Online Recommendations. Behavior Therapy. Published online January 2018:99-112. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2017.09.005
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    Bayer JK, Ukoumunne OC, Lucas N, Wake M, Scalzo K, Nicholson JM. Risk Factors for Childhood Mental Health Symptoms: National Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. PEDIATRICS. Published online September 2, 2011:e865-e879. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-0491
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    Weiss B, Dodge KA, Bates JE, Pettit GS. Some Consequences of Early Harsh Discipline: Child Aggression and a Maladaptive Social Information Processing Style. Child Development. Published online December 1992:1321. doi:10.2307/1131558
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    Pardini D, Frick P. Multiple developmental pathways to conduct disorder: current conceptualizations and clinical implications. J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2013;22(1):20-25.


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