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Are you ready to throw your hands in the hair and give up on timeouts altogether? Before you do try this easy and effective technique for timeouts.

I am part of the Xennial generation, so I would like to think that I value the traditions of the age before me while embracing the new ideas and theories of the generation after me.  One thing I cannot wrap my brain around is the idea that timeouts are harmful to kids.  

Admittedly I rarely used timeouts with my own child because I thought it didn’t work. And when I did, it was very inconsistent, which also didn’t work. Breaking news, it turns out I was doing it all wrong. It’s not totally my fault. Like most of you, I was looking for the best way to handle my daughter’s disruptive behavior. So I read all the books, talked to friends, and consulted doctors. Everyone had a different idea of handling timeouts. 

kid in timout

Before we get into how to do timeout effectively, let’s talk about what they are not.

Timeouts are not appropriate for all kids. The ideal age range where time out is most effective is between the ages of 2 and 8. Before two, they are too young to connect their actions with a consequence, and after eight, they can grasp the idea of removing privileges like tablets and tv time, which may be more meaningful for them.

They are not total isolation from you. This is where we got it wrong. With the advice from a doctor, we would isolate our girl in her room. This caused her to go into full panic mode. And while correcting our kids never feels good, there was just something that didn’t feel right, so we stopped. 

Timeouts are not harmful when used correctly. You’re not going to do irreversible psychological damage if you use timeouts as one of your many tools. 

Effective Timeouts

The goal of timeout is to extinguish unwanted behavior and replace it with desirable behavior. It is best not to focus on ALL the behaviors but just one or two. Also, try to get to the root of the behavior. You may not like that your kid talks back when you ask them to do something. Talking back, while not ok, isn’t the root behavior. It is not following directions the first time they are given. Timeouts will be more effective if you can specifically target the exact unwanted behavior. 

Stop asking questions.

I am terrible at this. I would ask my daughter, “Would you pick up your toys?” My question implied that she had a choice. She, of course, did not. So I have been working really hard at giving simple, explicit instructions. Pick up your toys, please. You will want to be as precise as possible. Pick up your toys could be overwhelming if they have gotten every toy they own out to play. “Pick up your dolls,” or “Pick up your stuffies.” is explicit and straightforward.

When and Where and How

Timeouts should be in a central location, in a corner, free from things to play with. This is really the only guideline. They can sit or stand, but they have to stay. 

When kids don’t comply the first time, it can be super frustrating. This is when you get your calm yet firm voice out. Look them in the eye and say, “You have two choices. You can pick up your dolls, or you can go to time out.” Give them about 5-10 seconds to make their choice. If they run off, talkback, or anything other than what you asked them to do, repeat the options. The goal is for them to comply the first time, but if they are still resisting, then they have made their choice.

Now once they realize you were serious, they will likely run off to do what you asked them to do two times ago. Too late! They must go to time out. They may go willingly, but there may times when you will have to herd them to their timeout spot. 

Related: Transform Your Child’s Behavior with this Easy Tool

How much time is a timeout?

You probably have heard that timeouts are a minute per age. I was surprised to learn that there actually isn’t research to support this theory. Three minutes is all they really need to get the point that you mean business.

Ignore, Ignore, Ignore

As difficult as it is probably going to be, you will need to ignore them while they are in their timeout. They may cry, beg, scream, call you names, or anything else they can think of to get out of timeout. It would be best if you ignored them. Like, don’t even look at them for the three minutes. The only exception to this is if they are aggressively hitting you. If they are doing this, then sit on the floor and gently wrap them in your arms and legs until they have calmed down. Their choice now is, “You can stay on the floor with me, or you can finish your timeout.” Remember, don’t ask them if they want to finish their timeout because you would be implying that they have a choice. 

Time Out is Over!

Once they have served their three minutes of time out, get back down to their eye level. Tell them their time out is over and repeat your command from earlier. It might sound something like this, “Your time out is over. Now, please go pick up your dolls.” Hopefully, fingers crossed, they will comply. Probably not happy about it but they will do it. If they do, sing their praises. They served their time, so there is no need to still be grumpy about it. Praise them for following directions and help them move on to the next activity. 

Now, if you have a stubborn one (hand raised over here), they may not comply. In this case, you repeat the process. It’s exhausting, I know, but your hard work will pay off if you stay consistent.

Let’s recap the steps to an effective timeout:

  • Give your child a simple, explicit command.
  • If your child obeys, YAY!! praise away!!!
  • If your child disobeys give them two options in a simple sentence. “You have two choices you can ________, or you can choose to go to timeout.”
  • Your child then complies, yay praise away
  • Your child refuses, they have made their choice and it’s off to time out.
  • 3 minutes in time out. no interaction
  • Time out is over, repeat the command
  • If your child complies, yay! praise away!!
  • Does your child refuse? Repeat the simple, explicit sentence “You can choose to ________, or you can choose to stay in timeout.”
  • If your child complies, yay! praise away!!!
  • Does your child refuse again? Repeat the timeout process until you have compliance
flow chart of an easy and effective timeouts

One last tip…

It would be awesome to practice this with your kiddo before you start implementing it. When we first rehearsed it, my daughter thought she was super clever, so when we asked her to do something she did it. So we first practiced with a doll. Then we practiced with me being her and her being me. Finally, we practiced with her going to timeout. It was fun and lighthearted but really reinforced the concept. 

This process has worked wonders for us. There is no more fussing or arguing with our daughter. She’s not perfect, but most five-year-olds aren’t. She is working really hard to keep herself out of timeout, and I am super proud of us both.

Have you used this method with your kiddo? We would love to hear your experience in the comments.