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 discipline technique that many parents and experts find very useful when kids act out in unacceptable ways. For example, you tell your toddler not to hit their sibling, but your child doesn't comply. In response, you sit your child in a quiet corner for a set time to reflect on what they did wrong (and, hopefully, how to not behave that way in the future).

Time-outs are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and they're used by up to 85% of parents. And yet, opinions abound about when time-outs are appropriate and how they should be carried out.

The Right Age for Time-Outs

Experts recommend not using the time-out discipline method until your child is around age 2 or 3. This is about the time when children will begin to recognize cause and effect and understand consequences. At this age, they are also starting to gain more self-control and are more apt to stay in the time-out area.

For younger toddlers, you can certainly use a high chair or change of scenery to keep them from doing something dangerous, hurting another child, or harming property. However, they are much less capable than older children of connecting their behavior to the consequence, so they may be less likely to think before they act out again after the time-out.

Time-outs are effective through about age 8. Natural consequences that fit the unacceptable behavior—taking away your child's phone for a day if they snuck Snapchat during homework time, for instance—is a good discipline strategy for older children.

When to Use Time Outs

Parents and caregivers often use time-out as a way to help children calm down, work out a tantrum, or 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 child knows what's expected.

With some practice and when done properly, a time-out can be effective in many situations, like when you want your child to stop hitting, throwing things, screaming in the house, scribbling on walls, or climbing furniture.

The Best Way to Do a Time-Out

You may hear different opinions—from parenting experts, doctors, friends, and family members—on how to administer a time-out. What often differs is tone. Some parents are stern when they carry them out, others are supportive. Some portray time-outs to their kids as punishments, while others spin them as a time for reflection.

However, when you distill down these twists on the "perfect" time-out, you will find the same basic routine. Let's look at some of the most commonly agreed-upon fundamentals of doing time-outs the "right way" so that you (and your child) can get the most benefit from using them.

Give Your Child a 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.

Follow Through If the Misbehavior Continues

If your toddler ignores your warning, follow through on administering the time-out promptly. While it's sometimes tempting to "ice out" a child when their behavior is frustrating, explain what you are doing and why. You can say, "I asked you to stop throwing your shoes and you did it again. You need to have a time-out."

Bring Your Child to a Designated Time-Out Spot

The best place for a time-out is one with limited distractions. When there are no toys or entertainment, your child may be more apt to reflect on why they are in time-out and be negatively conditioned to not want to land in one again.

For very young kids, choose a space that's childproofed and, preferably, in your line of sight. 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.

Parents differ on whether they want the family time-out spot to be exclusionary (where kids are isolated) and non-exclusionary (where the time-out is in a common area of the home). Whatever time-out space you choose, make it the same spot each time you carry through the time-out.

Set a Timer

Setting a timer helps signal that you mean business. Many experts advise that time-outs should last 1 minute per year of age. When your toddler is seated and calm, consider leaving the immediate area. At the very least, don't 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.

Prompt Positive Behavior Afterward

When the timer goes off, return to your toddler and explain once more why they had to have a time-out. You might say, "I asked you to stop throwing your shoes but you did it again and that's why you had to have time-out."

If your child made a mess before the time-out, they should be prompted to clean it up. If they had a tantrum in resistance to an important task, like brushing their teeth, they should be instructed to complete the task.

When a child follows up a time-out with corrected behavior, like petting the family dog gently after pulling the dog's tail earlier, you should praise them. Positive reinforcement is just as (if not more) effective as negative consequences like time-outs.

Hug It Out

A hug, kiss, pat on the back, or "I love you" after a time-out helps your child understand that no matter what their behavior is like, you will always love and care for them.

Then, 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.

Time-Outs When Not at Home

What if your child acts out at a friend's or family member's home, at a store, or in a restaurant? You may be reluctant to follow through with a time-out, but follow through as best you can, following similar steps to those you do at home.

Start with a warning: "You may not throw your fork at the table." If the behavior continues, 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 ready to respond should they misbehave again.

The Importance of Consistency and Calm

Will your child misbehave in this way again? It's likely, especially if this is the first offense. The more consistent you are with following through with time-outs in certain situations, the more likely your child will be to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Most experts agree the most important element of time-outs is consistency. Many children will fight the time-out at first to test if you are serious. Kids test boundaries—that's how they learn, so don't be deterred. Following through with your stated consequence is key to showing that you mean what you say.

Also, young children feel secure when they know they can depend on the adults in their lives to be predictable. This is true for many aspects of life, from bedtime routines to discipline. When your toddler knows what to expect, they are more likely to follow schedules and rules.

Try to remain as calm as possible during time-outs, too. When your child is out of control, it's more important than ever for you to stay in control of your emotions. 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 self-regulation skills to do so.

Of course, it's human nature to get upset along with your child from time to time. If your anger is getting the better of you, you may want to take a time-out in a quiet room yourself—and return to your child when you've calmed down and are better able to model the behavior you want to see in your child.

A Word From Verywell

As with most parenting issues, there is no one-size-fits-all method of discipline. When using time-outs, pay close attention to your child's reaction and follow your instincts on how to best utilize the technique with your child. 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 hard work in enforcing time-outs will likely pay off in more of the behavior you want to see.

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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.
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  2. Nemours Foundation. Disciplining Your Child.

  3. Child Mind Institute. How to Make Time Outs Work.

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