Timeout has to be consistent and boring in order to work, child psychologist says

Frustration with timeout is a common experience. Kids won’t stay in timeout; they yell and scream and flop on the floor when they are supposed to be sitting in the timeout space; and after a timeout kids will sometimes go right back to doing the thing that got them in timeout in the first place.

Parents are right to question the benefit of timeout, which can be much more complicated than just sitting a child in the corner for a few minutes.

Here are five tactics to using timeout effectively as a disciplinary technique.

Keep it boringReally boring. The full name of the timeout intervention is “Timeout From Positive Reinforcement,” so during timeout, you want to be sure that your kiddo does not have access to anything he or she enjoys, including your attention. Avoid talking to your child (including arguing with them), coaxing them back into timeout, trying to calm them down, threatening them with more time in timeout if they are not quiet or giving them updates on how many minutes they have left. The less you say, the more effective timeout will be for you and your child.

Be consistent. Decide what behaviors will lead to timeout and stick to it. For example, if timeout is for hitting, every time your daughter hits your son, she goes to timeout. At home. At grandma’s. At the zoo. And remember: A threat is not the same as timeout. If you threaten timeout after every hit, your daughter learns she can get in at least one hit before she’s in trouble!

Use a timer. Having a way to keep track of time helps prevent the timeout from being too short or too long. Determine an amount of time that suits you and your child, and stick to it.

Practice. Taking time to plan how you use the intervention can help a lot. Know what you are going to say, where the timeout will take place, how long it will last and what behaviors will earn a timeout. Once you have decided on all of these factors, talk it through with your child and practice. Then, when the behaviors happen, your child will know what to expect.

Don’t give up. Sometimes the behaviors can get worse before they get better, especially if you tried timeout without success before. To be effective, you need to be consistent and follow through when poor behavior occurs. Look for trends rather than perfection. Old habits die hard, but when you see an eventual decrease in the problem behavior, you are on the right track.

Whether you choose timeout or another disciplinary technique, it should be immediate and contingent. Keep a consequence as close as possible to when the problem behavior occurs, and make sure that consequence is applied. Children catch on quickly when it comes to knowing which family member or caregiver will give in.

Finally – and maybe most importantly – timeout really only works in contrast to time in. Creating a loving, nurturing and responsive home life for your child when they are not in timeout will greatly increase the effects of timeout. When that source of intense, positive attention is turned down during the few moments of timeout, a child is much more likely to notice and work to avoid the timeout.

At the end of the day, parenting is hard. The demands are intense and there is no shortage of (sometimes conflicting) parenting advice. Timeout has stood the test of time and the rigors of research, and with proper application, can be an effective tool in a parent’s tool kit.


Children’s Hospital & Medical Center is offering a free Parenting U class on "Effective Timeout Techniques" on Tuesday, Sept. 10. To register for the in-person or webinar class, visit www.childrensomaha.org


Ashley Harlow, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and a nationally certified school psychologist with Children’s Hospital & Medical Center’s Behavioral Health. He provides individual and family therapy to children, adolescents and parents. He enjoys working with families facing common behavioral problems, including tantrums, aggression, noncompliance, toileting and sleep disruption, as well as anxiety, depression and adjustment distress.

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