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How to Give a Kid a Time Out That Counts

Time outs are the least controversial form of discipline, but they can also be done totally wrong.

Time outs are a less controversial discipline tactics that both parents and expert appear to agree on. Putting a kid into a designated spot to cool their heels is a nonviolent punitive measure for the non-spanking crowd. But it also taps into the idea of natural consequences. For parents who prefer to lean into reasoning, a timeout allows a natural time to discuss behavior with a kid. And all of this would make time out flawless if it weren’t for the fact that many parents adopt them without knowing the right technique. Because it turns out there’s an optimal method to timeouts that will make the truly worthwhile for both parents and kids.

“This is an opportunity to talk about the consequence of a behavior that was deemed inappropriate,” explains Dr. Gene Beresin, Executive Director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. “Business-as-usual has to stop. And the reason it has to stop is to use the time to reflect on what went wrong, why it went wrong and what the consequences have to be.” Which, for many parents, sounds less like discipline and more like book group.

Beresin points out, however, that most kids are not going to find the time out so bland. “There is no way a child will not perceive a time out as punishment,” he says. That’s true even if the parent is incredibly careful about using a timeout to discuss what the kid did wrong. “However,” Beresin points out. ”The child’s perception of what it is, and your perception of what it doesn’t have to be in alignment.”

kid in timeout

Importantly, Beresin notes there are some guidelines to making this time of reflection/punishment work regardless of who’s perceiving what. And it all begins with entering the time out calmly. That’s because the point of a timeout is both decompression and reflection on the part of the child. Neither of those things can happen is a kid is in full-on meltdown mode. “It’s not going to be effective”

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But Beresin has a trick for that. “One technique that’s almost always effective for younger children is saying, ‘Okay, I’m going to count to ten and you’re going to stop this screaming and yelling.’ It’s almost infallible.”

Once the kid is calm, parents might be tempted to send the kid away for their timeout. But Beresin notes that’s not really the best idea. Not only could the kid wind up not reflecting and instead of looking at books or playing with toys during the timeout, it really goes against the entire point. That’s because what prompted the timeout in the first place was the violation of a social norm. So it’s important to keep them in a prosocial environment, but quiet and reflective to the best of their ability. Sending them away does just the opposite.

“That’s like banishing them to some desert island. It’s not a matter of banishment,” says Beresin. “Put them in a chair in the same room with you and make them think about what they just did.”

The time they spend in timeout is also important. The standard is a minute per age. A 3-year-old should not be expected to sit for any longer than three minutes because they simply can’t. It’s also important that parents encourage their kid to think about what they have done.
It’s almost inevitable that the thinking and discussion afterward about what went wrong, why it went wrong and how to fix it will inevitably lead to a sense of guilt. That’s not a bad thing. Because with a sense of guilt comes a sense of wanting to fix it.

little girl on timeout

“The most effective way of resolving that guilt is by making reparations,” Beresin says. “Although they won’t admit it, kids are grateful to have an authority figure punish them, which allows them to make reparations, and then you kiss and make up.”

That means that sometimes the timeout is not the ultimate consequence and additional reparations beyond the quiet reflection and discussion might have to be made. Hopefully, that reparation begins with an apology. From there, a kid might be asked to do a special additional chore or favor, or even lose a privilege if the offense warrants it. The important part is that the punishment needs to track with the offense.

Beresin notes that it’s also important for parents to model timeouts for their own behavior. He encourages them to put themselves in time out to reflect on bad behavior like snapping or yelling.

“That kind of reciprocal action where they’re used for both parents and kids is one of the most important aspects of timeouts.”