Is Time Out An Effective Child Discipline Tool For Handling Misbehavior?


Alice is four years old.  When her two-year-old brother won’t share a toy she wants, she pulls his hair.  Alice is sent to time out.  She starts having a tantrum and says, “I wanted that toy and he wouldn’t give it to me.”  The parent says, “Well, pulling hair is not how to ask for a toy you want.  Go to the corner for time out and think about how mean you were.”

What will happen next?  Will Alice calm down or get more upset?  Will she sit in the corner and think about how it wasn’t nice to pull her brother’s hair or how it wasn’t nice for her brother to refuse to share?  Will she think about how she’s a bad or mean girl or realize that she didn’t know how else to handle the situation? Will she learn better skills for managing sibling conflicts from the time out or just be mad at her brother and mother and want to get revenge?

Laura, a mom in one of my parenting classes once said, “Time outs are my generation’s version of spankings.” What she meant is that in years past, spanking was used every time when handling misbehavior, while today time out  is often used every time, especially for toddler discipline. Neither one, when used in ways parents typically use them, actually teach what parents want the child to learn.

Laura’s comment brings up three important questions:

  • When disciplining children, does using the same tool every time get the best results?
  • When handling misbehavior is time out even an effective child discipline tool to use?
  • What do children actually learn?

Many parents use the same type of discipline for every problem situation. One tool, however, is rarely effective for all situations. Plus, overusing one tool reduces its usefulness. Time out is just one tool — and it really isn’t even a “discipline” tool; it’s actually only effective when used as an anger-management tool. Since the purpose of a time out is to help someone regain control, it is most appropriate to use when someone has lost self-control or there is extremely disruptive behavior.

Most adults have the mistaken idea that the whole point of sending children to time out is to make the child suffer for their misbehavior. “You go to your room (or chair) and think about what you did.” The tone of voice usually implies, “and you suffer.” Imposing suffering usually brings on resentment, revenge and rebellion, and reduced self-esteem .   (Read more about the 4 R’s of Punishment, by Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline)  Effective child discipline is different from punishment. It holds children accountable while teaching them lessons about poor behavior choices.

You can listen to a discussion on toddler development and time out that is featured on the Educators Channel at BAM to learn more about using this tool effectively. You don’t need to eliminate time outs; just know the most effective ways to use them, by following these guidelines:

Develop a plan in advance. Teach children during a happy time about the value of a cooling-off period. Say, “When you feel like you’re going to lose control, you can go to (specify the place) and do something to make yourself feel better. Then, when you feel better, come out and we can work on a solution.”  Keep in mind, that if your child is in the toddler development stage, you will need to teach skills on how to cope with feelings on a daily basis.

Select a location for the time out. Some children calm down faster when they are alone and in a quiet place. Other children have too much energy to be forced to sit still. Some children become more out-of-control and hurtful when they are forced to spend a time out alone. These children can cool off in the same room as other people, as long as they aren’t disruptive.

Some parents hesitate to use a child’s room for fear the child will view the bedroom as a prison. If the time out is initiated kindly and the goal is to give the child and you some quiet space, children won’t see it as punishment. If you feel the child will be destructive, consider directing the child to an acceptable physical activity to channel their anger energy in a healthy way.

Teach children how to regain self-control. For children in the toddler development stage, you will likely need to suggest things the child can do to calm down while in time out. Older children can help decide where to go and what they can do to help themselves calm down.

Allow the child to play. Many parents are upset when they find their child playing during time out, but it’s actually a good sign that the child has regained self-control. If they are ready to play, they might also be ready to do some problem solving.

Present time outs as a choice. A child can choose to settle down or take some time out. Suggest the time out in a kind and firm manner, followed by the encouraging instructions to come back when the child is ready.

If you force a child to stay in a chair or room, it shifts the focus from what they did and their responsibility for calming down to who is in power. This turns the time out into a punishment or power struggle, which reduces its effectiveness.

Avoid timers. Use the child’s ability to regain self-control or willingness to act appropriately to decide how long a time out should last. Timers often turn time outs into power struggles. If children have calmed down and are ready to return but parents won’t let them “come out,” it often escalates into a power struggle. If children return before they have calmed down, firmly but kindly return them to the time out and emphasize the purpose is to calm down. Describe the behavior you want to see that shows they are calm.

When a time out is over: If the child lost control due to anger, let it go and don’t call attention to the behavior you want to stop. If the problem is serious or recurring, wait until both of you have calmed down. Then use problem solving exercises to help children think of ideas for handling the situation better in the future.

Think about your long-term goal. If you want children to learn that it is their responsibility to control their behavior, use time outs as cooling off periods that teach children how to achieve this self-control.

If you want more insights, information and practical tools and tips about disciplining children:


Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and hundreds of interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines. She is the author of the award-winning book The Parent’s Toolshop®, and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds, plus other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website,

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