Disciplinary Time-outs: Do They Actually Work?

October 20, 2016

The time-out— a common technique used by parents and caregivers to calm their children when they are acting up or not listening. If you have kids, you’ve probably used this technique on multiple occasions. For some parents, it works like a charm; and for others, it doesn’t work at all. In this article, we’ll take a look at disciplinary time-outs. Are they effective? Are you doing them right? Should you be using them at all?

Time-outs: Are you Doing them Wrong?

Many have been calling into question whether or not time-outs actually work. There are even some who believe it should be banned. This has led to many claiming that the time-out is out as a parenting technique. Why? Most parents and caregivers are not doing it correctly.

Family doctor Burt Banks, M.D. conducted research on childhood discipline to see if there was a way to improve the effectiveness of time-outs, and he found, like many other parents, he was doing it wrong.

“The key is to completely ignore your child,” he says. “A lot of misbehavior in children is done to get attention. Scolding gives them the attention they are seeking. It was actually the worst thing I could do,” he said on parents.com.

“Dr. Banks’s review concluded that time-outs are often an effective and appropriate discipline for children up to age 5 or 6 but the technique is being poorly managed by parents like him in the real world of tantrums, tears, and sibling smackdowns,” adds article author Becky Batcha.

Mistakes with Time-outs

One of the main reasons why time-outs have fallen out of favor with some, and a reason why they are not effective, is because of parents’ approach to using them. A time-out is meant to be a brief pause in a caregiver’s interaction with a child, and it is meant to help a child develop their self-calming skills.

“Time-out isn’t a chair; it isn’t a corner; it’s not a length of time,” says pediatrics professor Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., of Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO.

“It’s supposed to be time out from positive reinforcement,” he says. “As soon as the concept became a chair, it was ruined.”

This is where many parents go wrong. Rather than focusing on positive reinforcement, they treat a time-out as a punishment.

Common Time-out Mistakes

Here are some common mistakes parents make when issuing a time-out:

Making it a set period of time

A time-out is meant to give children the chance to calm down and get their emotions in check. It doesn’t have to be a specific period of time. Some children only need 45 seconds, while others may need more time. You know your child best.

Making a specific location a focal point

Defining a specific space for a time-out, such as a chair, corner, or bedroom, is not necessary.

Too much interaction

The main idea of the time-out is to stop interacting with a child until they calm down. Too many parents make this complicated by talking too much with their child before and after time-outs. “If time-out means I’m going to stop interacting with you, how can I possibly give you three warnings? Each one is an interaction,” says Dr. Christophersen.

Successful Time-out Tips

A successful time-out is meant to help your child calm down. To ensure time-outs are effective and serve their purpose, here are some tips to consider:

Don’t wait

If a child does something that warrants a time-out, address the situation immediately. Time-outs are most effective when given right after a misbehaviour, especially for younger children who have short memories. This helps the child connect which action they are being disciplined for.

Stay cool

It can be difficult for parents or caregivers to keep their cool when a child is misbehaving. When giving a time-out, you need to keep your emotions in check and avoid yelling. Communicate the reason why they are in trouble and tell them to have a time-out.

Follow through

Once a certain action has been established as grounds for a time-out, you need to follow through each time your child does this action and put them in a time-out, otherwise, a time-out will become an empty threat and they will continue to misbehave.

Move forward

Once the time-out is over, have a quick conversation with your child to make sure they understand why they were put in a time-out. Allow them to express their feelings, and then move forward with your day.

Alternatives to Time-outs

Remember that a time-out is only one of many tools in the parenting tool box. While a time-out teaches children not to do certain behaviours, there are other ways to approach discipline.

Here are some alternatives to the time-out

  • Redirect them to another action/behaviour
  • Stop what you are doing and listen to them
  • Talk about their feelings
  • Help them express their emotions in another way
  • Be present with them and get to the root of the issue


When used correctly, the time-out is still an effective parenting tool that can be used to calm children. However, it is only one of many ways to approach an issue with your child. Before using a time-out, consider if it is really necessary or the best course of corrective action.

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