Ask Dr. Mom: Are "Time-Outs" an Effective Discipline Strategy?

Ask Dr. Mom logo on a child sitting in time out

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Mona Amin, DO is a board-certified general pediatrician, the founder of Peds Doc Talk, and a mother to 2-year-old Ryaan. For our Ask Dr. Mom series, Dr. Amin is sharing how she approaches time-outs as both a doctor and a mom.

Time-outs are a discipline method created in the 1950s, back when corporal punishment was culturally the norm. Time-outs were invented as a way to discipline children without physical harm. The process is rooted in a principle of cause-and-effect, and is designed to diminish negative behavior over time.

For example, if your child throws a tantrum, a time-out might mean that you would put them in their crib or a safe space alone. During the duration of the time-out, they would be by themselves, which allows them time to decompress. You would not give attention to them during this time. After a set interval, you would return, and go about your normal activities.

Parents may use time-outs for unwanted behaviors such as hitting, throwing, kicking, or picking on siblings. Some parents may use this approach during a tantrum to give the child space to calm down.

However, many modern parenting philosophies have turned away from time-outs, believing that leaving your child isolated during a time of big feelings may not promote healthy emotional regulation in the long run. Children may look at time-out as "rejection" for their emotions, rather than working through those feelings together with their caregiver.

Are Time-Outs Successful?

Time-outs have been researched for decades. In one study focused on children with ADHD, time-outs were proven to be effective in changing behavior. Another study concluded that time-outs do not lead to long-term emotional or behavioral issues.

The reality is: Time-outs may be effective for certain children, and are not a harmful form of discipline when used intentionally and correctly. At the same time, it's important for parents to understand other ways to discipline a child that may be more inclusive of big emotions. By considering all the options, along with understanding your child, you can make an informed decision about what works for you and your family.

The Doctor Answer

So what exactly is a time-out and how do you implement one? Traditional time-outs involve the following steps:

  1. Notice the undesired behavior and issue a warning. If your child is throwing a toy for example, try saying something like, "If you throw your toys, you will have a time-out." If they continue throwing, you must follow through.
  2. As your child goes into time-out, explain the why: "You are going into a time-out because you threw your toy." You should not roughly guide them into a room, yell, or argue with them. Be consistent and calm as you enforce the boundary.
  3. Have your child sit in time-out. They shouldn't be playing, reading, or talking to anyone. If they emerge before the allotted time is up, gently bring them back into their time-out area while repeating the boundary: "You are in time-out because you threw your toy."
  4. Time-out is over when it's been between one and five minutes (one minute for the age of the child, and up to five minutes). Gently guide them out of the time-out area.
  5. Once time-out has concluded, remind them of the behavior you expect. "We don't want toys being thrown. Toys are for playing. Show me how you play with your toy."
  6. Focus on praising any good behaviors that happen after the time-out. For example, if you see them playing with the toy gently; you can comment on that. "I see you playing with your toy and not throwing. That is very good."

Mona Amin, DO

The goal of any time-out strategy is for the parents to bring a sense of calm and consistency to boundaries and household rules.

— Mona Amin, DO

In my practice, I am not against time-outs, but I much prefer discipline strategies that allow the child to be present in the same room where the unwanted behavior or tantrum took place. I believe there can be more teaching opportunities this way for long-term emotional regulation. It's important to know various methods, because you may find one works better for your child.

One such method is a "time-in" strategy, which includes natural responses that make the most sense for the set of circumstances and behavior of the child. Let's revisit the example of a child throwing a toy.

"I see you are frustrated and throwing," you might say. "We do not throw. If you throw again, I will have to take away the toy."

Your child throws again.

Say, "We do not throw the toy. I have to take it from you." Then, to follow through, you gently take the toy from your child.

Your child may begin having a tantrum, and you can respond by saying, "I see that you're frustrated, but I can't allow you throw your toys. I see that you're upset. I'm here if you need me."

It's important to implement a safe space in common areas where they can retreat if they need a moment to gather their emotions. This can be a "calm down" corner, or a "time-in" zone, with pillows, stuffed animals, or any other comforting objects. By creating this space, you are allowing your child to choose in the moment what they need after you held firm on the boundary.

The result is that we are not punishing children for having emotions, but we are being consistent. The toy will not be given back until they are calm. After this, you can reinforce positive behavior, similar to the time-out method: "I see you playing with your toy and not throwing. Very nice job rolling your car."

It's helpful to experiment with both strategies, as you will find what works best for you. Whatever you decide, the goal is for the parents to bring a sense of calm and consistency to boundaries and household rules.

The Mom Answer

In our home, we use the time-in method. From a social/emotional and developmental perspective, I feel it works better for us and our son. We see less tantrums and more learning, and if he does have a tantrum, it is not very long.

We started implementing this method from the moment he started having tantrums, at about 9 months. This consistency has allowed our son to understand that his emotions are welcome in this home, but certain behaviors are not.

Mona Amin, DO

I believe that kids can be given the responsibility of naming what they need in an emotional moment, but it's our job as parents to hold the boundary around unwanted behavior.

— Mona Amin, DO

When he has a tantrum, I get down on my knees and start speaking slowly and softly, which helps de-escalate. I tell him, "I see that you are upset. If you need me, I'm here. If you need a moment, you can have it."

With time, he has learned to decide what he needs. Sometimes, he just wants to cry. Sometimes, he uses breathing exercises that we taught him, and other times he'll simply say, "Momma hug!"

I believe that kids can be given the responsibility of naming what they need in an emotional moment, but it's our job as parents to hold the boundary around unwanted behavior.

The Takeaway

When debating between the time-out or time-in method, I encourage you to consider which approach fits best into your parenting style. Whichever method you choose, there should not be yelling, threats, or physical roughness. Moments of discipline are a learning opportunity for children, so it's important for you as a parent to know various options that may work for your child. If you have increased concerns about your child's behavior, please be sure to reach out to their pediatrician or healthcare provider.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Indiana University School of Medicine. Child Development – The Time-Out Controversy: Effective or Harmful?

  2. Fabiano GA, Pelham WE, Manos MJ, et al. An evaluation of three time-out procedures for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorderBehavior Therapy. 2004;35(3):449-469. DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7894(04)80027-3

  3. Knight RM, Albright J, Deling L, Dore-Stites D, Drayton AK. Longitudinal relationship between time-out and child emotional and behavioral functioningJ Dev Behav Pediatr. 2020;41(1):31-37. DOI: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000725

By Mona Amin, DO
Dr. Mona Amin is a board-certified pediatrician with five years of experience in private practice. She has written for multiple renowned parenting journals and has been a speaker at multiple conferences. She shares information and education about children's health and wellness, namely how to navigate the first few years to set a healthy parenting foundation for the rest of a child's life.