What to Do When Timeout Doesn't Work


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When it comes to disciplining children, there is no one solution that fits all kids. If your child is the kind of kid who spends the entire time in time out being angry or upset and screaming and crying and you aren't seeing any differences in her behavior, then it may be time to admit that the "do the crime, do the time" approach isn't working for your child.

Whether or not timeouts work can depend on a child's personality and temperament, her age and stage of development, and how the timeouts are being used. Timeouts may be just the thing one child needs to calm down and think about his behavior; but for another child, they may set off screaming and emotional upset. If time outs cause more chaos and upset in your home and aren't solving behavior problems, it may be time to start considering alternative child discipline strategies to steer your child's behavior in the right direction.

Strategies to Try

  • Stay cool and use other tools. Don't view timeouts as the holy grail of child discipline and be open to alternative ways to teach your child how to behave. The important thing is that you connect with your child, communicate effectively with her, and let her know that you expect her to be a child who makes good choices and treats others—including and especially you—with respect.
  • If at first you don't succeed, try again. Just as with offering new foods or getting your child to eat vegetables, the old saying about trying again when you fail the first time holds true for timeouts. He may hate time outs at first but eventually, your child may get used to taking a break away from a situation that upsets him so that he can calm himself down and organize his thoughts and emotions—skills that will become very important as he gets older.
  • Figure out how long the timeout should be. Are you keeping your child in her timeout spot too long? (Ten minutes may be way too long for a 5-year-old child, for example.) Consider the age and temperament of your child and stick to shorter timeouts for younger kids. For older kids, you might want to make the time fit the crime: longer for hitting and fighting with a sibling and shorter for saying something rude and apologizing right away for it, for example.
  • Find the right timeout setting. Are you sending your child to her room so she can play with her toys? That's not gonna encourage her to think about her bad behavior. Or are you putting her in timeout with the TV on? That won't be effective. Think about a quiet space without distractions where she can think about what she's done and how she can change her behavior the next time.
  • Be reassuring but firm. Explain—more than once if you need to—that time out isn't punishment, but a chance for everyone to calm down. Reassure your child that you love her, but that her behavior must change and that you will help her figure out how to make better choices and talk to her once the time out is over.

Don't physically restrain your child. The point of time out is quiet thinking and calming down. Trying to hold down your child is the very opposite of that, and could result in your child becoming injured.

  • Sit nearby if your child finds it too upsetting. This may help younger kids stay in timeout and not be so distressed about being in timeout. But be sure not to talk to your child or engage with him.
  • Give the things he loves a timeout. Take away privileges. Does your child love to play Minecraft? Tell him that he will not be allowed to play for a certain amount of time (days or a week, depending on the seriousness of what he did wrong). Does he love to have friends over after school or go hang with his buddies? He may lose play date privileges as a consequence of bad behavior. Think about what your child loves and give those things a timeout to guide him in the right direction.

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.