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Using time-out to guide your child’s behaviour

3-8 years

When you give your child time-out for unacceptable behaviour, you take your child away from interesting activities and attention. Time-out can be a very effective way of helping children learn the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

What is time-out?

Time-out involves taking your child away from interesting activities and not giving your child attention for a short period of time.

If your child is behaving in an unacceptable way, time-out is a strategy that can help you manage your child’s behaviour. 

Time-out works best when it’s used with other child behaviour strategies – for example, in combination with praise for acceptable behaviour.

How time-out works

Time-out is a powerful way to teach children about unacceptable behaviour.

Even young children can understand that when they misbehave, they lose the chance to be around other people and interesting things for a short time. Time-out also gives your child the chance to think about what happened and what she might do differently next time.

And time-out is less likely to make children feel anger, shame or fear than other approaches to discipline like smacking. Strong emotions like anger can make it hard for children to think about what they did wrong.

Time-out works well when the time you spend with your child is warm and loving. If your child’s behaviour or other things in your life are affecting the time you spend with your child, talk with your GP or a counsellor.

About quiet time and time-out

There are two types of time-out strategy – quiet time and time-out. 

Quiet time
This is when you remove your child from the situation, but not the place. For example, if you’re at the park you might ask your child to sit under a tree for five minutes and calm down. If you’re at home you might ask your child to sit in a chair against the wall in the same room as you.

You can take quiet time with you wherever you go. For example, you can use it in the park, at the supermarket or at a friend’s house. While in quiet time, your child might:

  • calm down and feel more in control of his emotions
  • see other children behaving in more appropriate ways
  • see other children getting attention for positive behaviour
  • start learning that negative behaviour doesn’t get attention.

If your child won’t stay in quiet time in the same room, you can try time-out in another room.

Time-out
In time-out, your child goes to a previously arranged time-out area, like a spare room or hallway, after misbehaving. The time-out area is usually a safe and boring room or location without toys or games.

You can leave the door of the area open, but if your child comes out before you say so, you can close the door until time-out is over. This can help to stop any battles between you and your child.

Closing the door might be the best choice if time-out leads to very loud or aggressive behaviour – from your child or you. Keeping the door open might be the best choice if you need to supervise your child during time-out.

A disadvantage of time-out is that you might not have access to a time-out area when you leave the house, especially if you’re out in public.

Sometimes challenging behaviour is because your child isn’t feeling well or for some other reason, including your child’s stage of development. It can help to keep this in mind as you decide on behaviour management strategies for your child. 

Introducing a time-out strategy in your family

Here are some things to think about before you start using a time-out strategy.

What are your strategies for staying calm?
First of all, when you’re using time-out, it’s important to stay calm. If you find yourself getting stressed, try taking a few deep breaths to help relax your body and mind.

How old is your child?
Time-out can be a useful strategy for children aged 3-8 years. Children younger than three years aren’t usually ready for time-out.

Instead you can try praising your toddler when she does something well. Also, toddlers often respond well to distraction or changing the environment as ways to prevent unacceptable behaviour.

When your child is around nine years old, you can start to involve him in working out limits and rules. This helps him to learn skills for managing his own behaviour as he grows. Read more in our article on discipline strategies for teenagers.

Is now a good time to start?
Sometimes children start behaving in challenging ways when there have been changes in their lives – for example, the arrival of a baby brother or sister, moving house, or starting child care, preschool or school.

In situations like these, you might choose to use time-out or you might choose to wait until your child has had some time to adjust to the changes. Either way it’s also a good idea to spend some time talking with your child about how she feels about the changes.

Which behaviour would you like to work on?
Think about your child’s behaviour and what you would like to change – for example, hitting or swearing. Keep in mind that it’s best to work on changing one behaviour at a time. When the behaviour you’ve chosen is no longer a problem, you could work on another behaviour – for example, throwing toys.

Do you want to use quiet time, time-out or both?
One option is using quiet time when you’re out in public and time-out when you’re at home.

How long will your child’s time-outs or quiet times be?
They don’t have to be long to be effective. A good rule of thumb is one minute per year of age, up to a maximum of five minutes – for example, three minutes maximum for a three-year-old and five minutes maximum for children aged 5-8 years. You could set a timer to help you keep track of the time.

Where will the time-out area be?
A good time-out spot is boring and safe. A hallway or spare room is ideal. Try to make sure there are no toys around, but also take care that the room is not dark or scary in any way.

Will you give a warning before putting your child in time-out?
You might want to give your child a chance to change his behaviour before you use time-out. Or you might decide that some behaviour, like hitting or biting, should result in an instant time-out.

If you decide on a warning before time-out, be sure to follow through if your child’s behaviour doesn’t change. Otherwise time-out won’t work.

How will you explain time-out?
It’s a good idea to talk to your child beforehand and explain what behaviour will lead to a time-out and what will happen. The best time to have this talk is when you’re both feeling calm.

For example, you’ll need to tell your child where she’ll sit quietly to calm down and how long this will last. Answer any questions she has. If you’re not sure whether she has understood, ask her to repeat back what you’ve said.

For younger children, you might practise what will happen using a teddy bear or doll, or even another adult.

Next

Making time-out work for you

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Last updated or reviewed
28-11-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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