How to Discipline Your Toddler Using Time Outs

a boy sitting on a sofa having a time out

JGI / Jamie Grill / Blend Images

Time outs are a frequently used discipline technique that many parents and experts find to be very useful. It's often something that parents start trying when their toddlers begin to test the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior. For example, a parent might tell their toddler not to hit their sibling or not to leave their toys on the floor. The request may be asked several times but the child may not comply. In response, many parents will implement time outs as a consequence to help their child realize that the behavior is unacceptable and also to assert their authority as parents.

The toddler may be escorted to a high chair, their room, or another designated spot to "think about what they did," how to do better next time, and calm down. This is time out discipline.

The Right Time for Timeouts

Experts recommend not starting to use this discipline method until your child is around 2 years of age or older. Before that toddlers don't understand cause and effect. Time outs are more likely to be effective (with regular and proper use) once children have this understanding. At this age, they are also starting to gain more self-control and can make independent choices, for instance, about whether to stay in or leave the time out area.

Time outs will be much more successful if you wait to start using the technique until your child displays these crucial skills of awareness and self-control. Before that time, you can certainly use a high chair or change of scenery to separate your child from doing something dangerous, hurting another child, or harming property. However, they are much less capable of understanding the time out as a consequence—and may not "get it" despite repeated "time outs."

There's Not One Right Way

Many parents wonder about the best way to do a time out. This is a tricky one as there are probably as many directives and opinions on how to implement a time out (in addition to those who question if it's even OK to do time outs at all) as there are on the best foods to eat. In fact, the most popular methods change just as frequently as the "in" foods do. You can find guidance offered by countless parenting experts, books, doctors, friends, and family members. However, when you distill down these twists on the "perfect" time out, you will find the same basic routine.

What differs are the specific methods of implementation—and the thinking behind them, such as whether the focus is on a time for support, understanding, punishment, reflection, space, venting or "crying it out," or on reaffirming a connection with your child. The many possible variations can also be divided into exclusionary (where kids are isolated) and non-exclusionary (where the time out is not in an isolated space or a parent accompanies the child to the time out space).

Just about every parenting book includes their own version of doing time outs so it's worth exploring them to find a good fit for you. Doing so can also help you realize that you can come up with our own take as well. Parents can tailor their time out approach to their own personal parenting philosophy and suit what they believe will resonate best with their toddler.

First, Make a Plan

By and large, most time outs methods contain the same basic elements—a warning, a set spot for "time out," a set time period for staying there, possibly an apology, a reminder of why the child was in time out, and a release from time out. The particulars are really up to you. It might take a bit of experimenting until you find the method that fits in best with your family. So, let's look at some of the fundamentals of doing time outs the "right way" so that you (and your toddler) can get the most benefit from using them.

Steps to an Effective Time Out

According to the Centers for Disease Control and other experts, these are the general steps to follow for successful time out discipline.

  1. Warning: When your child misbehaves, give a warning first. Let them know what they did wrong, what will happen if they don't stop, and what behavior you expect instead. For example, "I asked you to stop throwing your crayons. If you do it again, you'll have to have a time-out." Resist the urge to lecture or your message will likely be lost.
  2. Tell your child why: If your toddler ignores your warning, follow through and take them to your designated time out spot. When they are seated, explain why they are there. "I asked you to stop throwing your shoes and you did it again. I'm setting the timer for 2 minutes and then you can get up."
  3. Set a timer: Set the timer (a common rule is 1 minute per year of age). When your toddler is seated and calm, leave the area and do not talk to your toddler or give them any attention during the time out. If your toddler gets up, return them to the time out spot (as many times as necessary) without talking. Reset the timer and leave the area.
  4. Second explanation: When the timer goes off, return to your toddler and explain once more why they had to have a time out: "I asked you to stop throwing your shoes but you did it again and that's why you had to have time out."
  5. Apology: Ask your child to say that they are sorry for misbehaving and accept the apology if it is offered in a civil tone of voice. If it's not, give your child a warning. You can choose to give another time out if they don't give you a gently spoken apology.
  6. Affection: After you've received an acceptable apology, offer your child physical affection. Kisses, a hug, a pat on the back, or an "I love you" help your child understand that no matter what their behavior is like, you always love and care for them.
  7. Forgive and forget: After the process is over, move on from the situation. Let go of any anger, resentment, and disappointment. Give your child a clean slate. Resist the urge to bring it up or carry on lecturing after the time out is over. Will your child misbehave in this way again? It's likely, especially if this is the first offense. Give them the chance to make mistakes and learn from them and one day you'll likely see the behavior disappear. If you're still holding on to the misbehavior, however, expect that your child will do the same.
  8. Follow up with praise: Be sure to praise the next good thing your child does to reinforce the positive. Getting attention for doing the right thing tends to encourage more of the behaviors you want.

Consistency Is Key

Nearly everyone will agree that the most important element of using time outs is consistency—rather than exactly how you do them. Many children will fight the time out at first to test if you are really serious. Kids test boundaries—that's how they learn, so don't be deterred. Expect time out challenges. In fact, challenges just might mean you're on the right track. Following through with the consequence is the key to showing that you really do mean what you say and following your expectations matters.

Toddlers are creatures of habit who feel secure when they know that they can depend on the adults in their lives to be predictable. Most like waking up and taking naps at the same time each day, and they readily accept the routines we set for them like bath-story-drink-bedtime. The same is true of discipline. When your toddler knows what to expect, it sets up a framework that they can feel secure to operate inside of.

When you say one thing, but do another, this can confuse your child, unwittingly setting up the precedent that you cannot be taken at your word. This makes it hard for your toddler to trust you. When you give lots of warnings, each ending in a promise of time out that never gets enforced or you count to 3 but hit 2-and-a-quarter, 2-and-a-half, and 2-and-three-quarters along the way, you're sending the message that you don't always mean what you say.

The Importance of Calm

After consistency, the most important thing you can do is to remain calm. Think firm but kind, and remember that while your child may be out of control, crying, or yelling, your goal should be the opposite. In fact, the greatest gift you can provide your struggling child is to be their rock. Remember that even though it can be hard to see at the time, kids are doing the best they can and want to please you—they just may lack the skills and finesse to do so. Seeing misbehavior as a time for learning and re-setting can be productive and liberating for both you and your child—rather than getting mired in viewing it as personal.

If you get upset along with your child, your anger or other negative reaction will likely serve to fuel those responses in your toddler. Remember, when your child is not able to stay in control, it can help for you to model controlled behavior. If you instead mimic their behavior, the situation is more likely to escalate—and be repeated. This can create a frustrating, even traumatic, dynamic for you and your child.

Create the Right Setting

The right setting is also crucial. The end goal of discipline is to help our children learn to manage their own behavior. Setting up a distraction-free area for time out, often away from other family members, helps them make better choices. Part of why time outs work is the brief lack of attention from you. It's not supposed to be torture, but it's not supposed to be a pleasant time either.

In addition, the timeout can be just as necessary for you as the parent. It gives you a moment to regain your composure and let go of any anger or frustration that may have built up as a result of your child's behavior. If they're sitting right there in front of you, looking at you, you might be tempted to rant, lecture, or give in to whining or continued misbehavior, which diminishes the effect of time out.

The best place for a timeout is one that is safe and child-proofed, with limited distractions. You may want to be able to see and monitor your toddler. Some methods advocate for having direct eye contact with or even holding your child. Others advocate not contact at all. A small step-stool or child-sized chair placed in an out-of-the-way corner of a dining room or another little-used room can work well.

When to Use Time Out

Parents and caregivers often use time out as a way to help toddlers calm down, work out a tantrum, or to break patterns of misbehavior. When you use it is up to you but one key is to describe to your child how the process will work ahead of time and then stick to the plan. That way, your toddler knows what's expected. At first, time outs may take much longer than 2 or 3 minutes (or longer with older kids) as your child may keep getting up to test this new discipline method.

With some practice and when done properly, a time out can be effective in many situations, such as for any behavior that you want your toddler to stop like hitting, throwing things, screaming in the house, tearing a book, climbing the bookcase, you name it. Plus, it works just as well to get your toddler to start behaviors, including to pick up toys, get dressed, or come to the bathroom to take a bath.

One Minute per Year of Age

Most experts recommend that time outs last one minute per year of age, which is about the length of their attention spans. In practice, the time outs may last much longer if your child resists. When using time outs to help your screaming toddler to gain control, give your toddler as much time as they need.

Anger and frustration in a toddler do not necessarily resolve based on a clock and sometimes your attempts to help manage the situation just make it worse. Give your toddler space to work it out and be upset, but let them know it's not acceptable to run around the house screaming or otherwise be disruptive. Eventually, they may learn to take a step back on their own when they're upset if you've been offering this opportunity from the beginning.

Experts suggest that the effectiveness of time outs wanes around age 7, although this will vary among individual kids. After this age, you can still implement the same concept retooled as a "cooldown" space, such as their room, to go to in times of stress and misbehavior or to regain calm.

When to Require an Apology

Some parents don't like to integrate an apology step into their time out technique and that's completely fine. Some don't want to have their child express something that they may not understand or genuinely feel. You might feel like you're teaching them to lie. Others feel offering an apology (even if it's not always heartfelt) sets up a good habit. The understanding and internalization of things like gratitude and remorse may come later.

Either way, taking time periodically to explain why we apologize can help set up a better understanding of the value and true meaning of saying, "I'm sorry." Your toddler can learn that an apology makes the other person feel better and that it can be a powerful tool to help mend feelings and relationships.

Does Your Toddler Always Need a Warning?

In general, yes, but use your judgment. Most toddlers (and even older kids) are not always able to take what they learned in one situation and apply it to another, no matter how similar they can seem to the adult.

There are, however, times when a warning isn't necessary. For example, if you've been working on a specific behavior for a long time, you can let your toddler know in advance that no warning will be given. Say, "You've been in time out every day this week for tipping over the dog's water, so I'm not going to give you any more warnings. If you do it, you'll go straight to time out." In addition, those acts where your child is harming another person may need no additional warning.

If your toddler does something intentionally to get your response or you see a clear look of realization on their face indicating they know that what they've done is wrong, then a warning may not be useful. These instances may warrant immediate follow-through. In the former, your child is testing to see if you will keep your word. In the latter, your child is testing what's right and wrong on their own, so it's a perfect opportunity to reinforce what's right.

Why No Talking?

Toddlers are people of action who seek social interaction. You can talk to them about what they've done wrong until you're blue in the face but all those words may be completely lost on them—and even add to their confusion or will to challenge you. Instead, aim to use as few words as possible to make your point. Use the simplest terms that you know your toddler can understand, say it once, and then stop talking.

If your toddler gets out of time out, returning them without speaking a word to avoid giving attention to the negative behavior. As counterintuitive as it may seem, kids often seek your attention, even if it's negative. Make a point to not engage your toddler in a power struggle. If your toddler sees that you're becoming frustrated and you've let him off the hook in the past, they may push you to this way again and again because it's given proven results. More success is usually found by maintaining calm, silent self-control.

What to Do When You're Not at Home

When you're at a family member's home, out shopping, or dining out, discipline is just as important—but can be harder to pull off. In fact, as the rules at home tend to be more flexible than the rules out in public, you may encounter more instances of behavior warranting time outs. Many parents know what it's like to have a toddler's conduct draw the attention of an entire restaurant, plane, or grocery store.

It can feel as if everyone is staring you down to see what you will do about your child's behavior. Under the microscope, you may be reluctant to follow through with a time out. However, if your toddler knows that you won't follow through away from home, chances are, that may be where you can expect their worst behavior.

So, follow, as best you can, the same steps you do at home. Start with a warning: "You may not throw your fork at the table." Find a quiet, out-of-the-way spot, start the timer on your phone or keep an eye on your watch, and make sure your child completes the full time out. Return to the table without animosity, expecting that your child will behave, but be ready to take charge should they misbehave again. This is especially crucial the first few times you enforce time outs away from home.

Remember, don't feel bad about disciplining your child in public. Most people will be happy that you are taking action and will respect you for it. Regardless, it's none of their business. If you let your fear of what other people think of your parenting skills get in the way, you're sending a message to your child that there are special rules that apply when you're in public.

A Word From Verywell

As with most parenting issues, there is no one-size-fits-all method of toddler discipline. When using time outs, pay close attention to your child's reaction and follow your instincts on how to best utilize them with your child. Be as consistent as possible, but remain flexible if you find that what you're doing isn't working. You also may want to combine time outs with other toddler discipline techniques.

Though time outs can be hard to enforce at first, especially when you're dealing with the misbehavior you're seeking to curtail, know that it gets easier with practice. Even better, with consistency and calm enforcement of your rules, your time spent issuing time outs will likely pay off in more of the behavior you want to see.

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