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A Parenting Dialogue: Does Time-Our Actually Work?

by Vannessa Rhoades 07 Jul 2023
parenting dialogue
A Parenting Dialogue: Does Time-Out Actually Work?


We started doing a "naughty corner" with our 2-year-old son recently. But all these blogs I read and preschools I visit say time-out is not effective toddler discipline. I'm torn because sometimes it seems to be the only way to get him to listen. Does time out work for 2-year-olds? Why is time-out so out of fashion?

A Parenting Dialogue: Does Time-Our Actually Work?

The New Mom


Time-outs don't get at the core issue. Sure, they will make things easier (for you) for the time being, but they really have no effect in the long term. Plus, do you really think we ought to be teaching our children to follow our demands unquestionably? Instead of asking children why they're exhibiting a particular behavior, lots of parents just tell them to stop, and then put them in time-out if they don't. Why don't we all try to understand our children a little better, instead of constantly trying to exercise authoritarian control? Wouldn't that be the more loving option?

-- Shawn, mother of one toddler

The Experienced Mother


We did timeouts when my kids were acting really awful. Kids need to know that there is a consequence to their misbehavior, but it's also important to be clear on what that misbehavior is. You have to be consistent and clear with what you deem as “bad behavior” and not just for any random thing that makes you mad. For example, at our house, bad behavior was hitting, biting, throwing things, destroying things, etc. There were plenty of other times when the behavior was just annoying – but that didn’t warrant a time-out. Or, for instance, If they spilled something, that was just an accident so no time-out. If they broke something by accident, no time-out. I would also warn them before I put them in time-out and give them a chance to think about it and change their behavior. But if it was repeated, they went to time-out.

Something different works with every child. For my now-grown children, time-outs were perfect. They needed that moment to get themselves together, and honestly, I needed it, too. Never longer than a few minutes. Worked great. For other kids, it won’t work. If it works for your kids, believe what you are seeing and not what you are being told.

-- Katie, mom of four grown children

The Pediatrician's Approach


Does time-out work for children? When used correctly, medical experts say it does. Time-out has been around for a long time as a recommended approach for parents dealing with challenging behaviors from their young children. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advocate using time-out as a best practice for managing behavior, especially when it's combined with a strong and positive parent-child relationship. Decades of research have shown that using time-out can actually lead to a decrease in aggressive behavior, better compliance from children, and even a greater tendency for them to display appropriate behavior in different settings. In order to be effective, the AAP recommends the following steps:

  1. Give your child a warning and name the behavior. (“Don’t throw your toy at your brother. If you don’t stop, you’ll have to sit in time-out.”)
  2. If they don’t comply, have them go to a quiet place free from any stimulation (like a corner – not a bedroom or playroom with toys or electronic devices). Don’t talk to your child during a time-out. Time-out is based on removing positive reinforcement, such as social attention and access to physical objects.
  3. Keep them there for one minute for each year of their age. (2 years old = 2 minutes, 3 years old = 3 minutes, etc.)
  4. If your child gets up or leaves the time-out, send them back. If they throw a tantrum during a time-out, ignore it unless there is a danger of harming themselves or others.

That said, a 2016 study by the AAP has also shown that many parents use time-out incorrectly. Researchers conducted a survey of 401 parents of children ages 15 months to 10 years. They discovered that about 77% had used time-out, and 70% said it usually or always was effective. However, 85% reported using at least one technique that was counter to evidence-based practices, and 64% made multiple implementation errors. The most common mistakes were giving the child multiple warnings before putting him or her in time-out, talking to the child during a time-out, and allowing the child access to toys, books, electronics, or other people. Parents who said time-out was effective were more likely to use the method correctly.


    The Holistic Approach

    A:Nationally recognized parenting expert and founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, Amy McCready offers a few holistic alternatives to traditional time-outs. She believes that while time-outs may disrupt the behavior in the moment, it doesn’t work long-term to teach more appropriate responses. She also reasons that it’s not conducive to helping parents build a long-term, mutually respectful relationship where kids will listen and learn without threats, nagging, or time spent in corners. McCready says that there are a number of reasons why time-outs are ineffective. 

    • First of all, when it comes to time-out, the consequence is almost never related to the behavior. (e.g., How is time on the “naughty step” related to hitting your sibling or throwing a toy at someone? It isn’t, she argues.)
    • Secondly, time-out is frequently used as a break – a time when the child is asked to sit quietly by themselves until the timer goes off. But what does it teach the child in those 5 minutes of silence? Are they thinking about the poor choices they made and what they could do differently? Or, are they thinking how unfair and mean Mom or Dad is for putting them there? 
    • Finally, research shows that kids learn best when they have a secure emotional connection with their parents. Isolating a child on the “naughty step” during moments of emotional distress is essentially leaving them to suffer alone. An instinctual psychological need of the child goes unmet.

    Like many other positive parenting advocates, McCready argues that children are better served when parents and caregivers model empathy. By showing empathy (“Wow, you seemed very upset…”), parents are able to emotionally connect with their children, making them more open to calming down and learning for the future. She recommends the following alternatives to time-out:

    • For kids younger than 3, try using “Remove and Redirect” strategies when misbehavior happens: remove the object, remove the child from the environment, redirect the child’s attention, or redirect the child’s activity.
    • For children older than 3, she suggests parents proactively prepare their child for difficult situations in order to reduce the need for a reactive response. How does one do this?
      • Fill their “attention basket.” Children need attention and will seek out whatever they can get from you – positive or negative. Take just ten minutes a couple of times a day with each child and play a game or read a favorite book. Let your phone go to voicemail. Don’t respond to the text. Let the laundry sit unfolded.
      • Take time for training. Help your child make better choices by teaching him the correct behavior or response. Role-playing is an ideal way to do this. When a little one throws a tantrum because they want a snack, model appropriate language by saying to them, “I’d like a snack, please.” This one takes time and practice. Also, be sure to respond encouragingly when your child does make the right choices (e.g., “Thank you for sharing the toy with your sister. How kind!”).

    Set limits and stick to them. Children thrive with structure and boundaries. When you’ve clearly communicated your expectations in advance, it gives your child a framework in which to operate. Does that mean you need to have hundreds of rules in place? No. But be clear about what’s most important and what happens when someone breaks the rules. Kids need to understand the consequences ahead of time and that the punishment is related to the misbehavior. For example, it’s appropriate for a kid to lose video game privileges the following day because they didn’t follow your rules on technology time limits. Making a child clean their room because they made a bad grade on a test is an unrelated consequence, and therefore, not an appropriate punishment. Most importantly be consistent. Follow through every time with the agreed-upon consequence when your child pushes the rules.


    A Parenting Dialogue: Does Time-Our Actually Work?

    The Takeaway

    There’s no doubt about it – parenting is the hardest job on Earth. While time-outs can be incredibly effective when used correctly, it's important to remember that they're not a one-size-fits-all solution to discipline. Parents should have a range of disciplinary techniques they can turn to for different situations.

    When it comes to dealing with specific toddler issues like tantrums, time-outs may not always be the best approach. Instead, it can be helpful to redirect their attention with distractions, demonstrate appropriate behavior for them to imitate, teach them self-regulation skills to manage intense emotions, and use reason to explain the natural consequences of their actions. These alternatives can be valuable additions to a parent's full toolkit of strategies to address various behavioral challenges.


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