By Alan E. Kazdin, PhD (Director, Yale Parenting Center) & Lauren G. Fasig Caldwell, JD, PhD (Director, APA Children, Youth, and Families Office)
Timeouts are a disciplinary tool that is widely misunderstood and frequently misused. Everyone has heard of timeouts, and they seem simple to use. Your child does something wrong, you send her to sit by herself for some set period of time. But, perhaps surprisingly, this is all many parents know about timeouts.
The goal of a timeout, or of any disciplinary tool, is to improve your child’s behavior. When used correctly, timeouts are highly effective for achieving this goal. Decades of research demonstrate the effectiveness of timeouts (Kazdin, 2013). The timeout technique follows a simple logic. Attention feeds behavior. So, to stop the behavior, create a brief break in all types of attention – demands, threats, explanations, rewards, hugs – everything. This stops the behavior in the moment. It does not stop the behavior in the future, and it does not teach the desired behavior. Those require additional steps, which are all part of an overall discipline plan.
To be clear, timeouts are only a tool you can use to control the problem behavior while you work on replacing it with a desired behavior – the true objective of any form of discipline. So, how can you use timeouts effectively?
8 Tips for Effective Timeouts
Timeouts should be:
- Used sparingly. They are only one technique in a discipline plan, so don’t over-rely on them. If you give more than one or two each day for the same behavior, that is too much.
- Brief. Research shows that timeouts’ positive effect on behavior is within the first one or two minutes (Kazdin, 2013). Extra time may satisfy your sense of justice, but it does nothing to change the behavior.
- Immediate. A timeout should follow the behavior that made the timeout necessary as soon as possible. Delayed timeouts are ineffective.
- Done in isolation from interaction with others. You can ignore your child for a brief period (where she otherwise might receive attention) or have her sit in a corner of a room (where it still might be reinforcing to see others). The key is to remove as many sources of reinforcement as possible. Attention is reinforcement because it increases the probability of the behavior it follows. Research shows that any form of attention, positive or negative, tends to increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring again (Kazdin, 2013).
- Administered calmly, not in anger or as an act of vengeance, but as an expected response to the behavior.
- Administered without repeated warnings. Make clear to your child before misbehavior which behaviors will lead to a timeout and what the timeout will be. Then be consistent about using timeouts when the behavior occurs, every time. Warnings lose their effect if not followed by consequences, and are unnecessary if your child has been told what to expect before the behavior occurs.
- Praised when completed. If your child goes to the isolated spot when asked, and completes the timeout, praise the specific behavior when complete: “It’s good that you went to timeout like I asked you, and that you sat quietly the whole time, that was wonderful.” Verbal encouragement should be combined with physical contact if possible – a gentle pat, high five, or other contact. Even though it may feel strange to praise your child as part of discipline, remember that actions followed by reinforcement will be strengthened and more likely to occur in the future. You want your child to comply with timeouts when they are necessary.
- Followed by a return to the task that was interrupted by misbehavior and timeout. Timeouts should not let your child off the hook of engaging in the behavior you want to see in the first place. This also provides an opportunity to positively reinforce the desired behavior, further strengthening the likelihood that your child will choose the desired behavior over the undesired behavior next time.
How to Build Your Discipline Plan
To eliminate the behavior that you don’t want and encourage the behavior that you do want, a discipline plan is essential. Research shows that how well timeouts work depends on the effectiveness of the time you spend creating the overall discipline plan (Kazdin, 2013).
Timeouts are only one aspect of the plan that you should develop. After all, discipline means training and implies learning; both are processes, not one-shot deals. A child does not learn to tie his shoes the first time he is shown either. Training of any kind requires an action plan that has been thought through prior to the training and with steps to enact the training.
Take these steps when creating your discipline plan:
- Identify the problem behavior (hitting, refusing to clean up, etc.).
- Identify the desired behavior, or, “positive opposite” of the problem behavior, to take its place (keeping your hands to yourself, putting the toys away when asked, etc.).
- Reinforce the desired behavior with praise, contact, and other rewards.
- Specify the consequences to be expected when the problem behavior occurs. This is where timeouts fit within the discipline plan. Your child must know what the consequences of the undesired behavior will be (e.g., a timeout, and where and how long the timeout will be).
- Enforce the specified consequences when the problem behavior occurs – every time. This is when consistency is crucial.
The more frequently and regularly you reinforce the desired behavior, and the more consistently and effectively you use timeouts when the problem behavior occurs, the more quickly your child will regularly engage in the desired behavior and not the problem behavior.
Of course, the cornerstone of effective discipline plans, and the key to effective behavior management, is a warm connected relationship with your child. Talk with your child about behaviors, feelings, and expectations. Connect with your child through hugs, smiles, and attentive listening, and support of your child’s accomplishments. These actions and a well-thought-out discipline plan including correct and appropriate use of timeouts can contribute to that relationship.
Why don’t timeouts always work this way? Many people misunderstand what timeouts should do and how to use them.
6 Myths about Timeouts Parents Should Ignore
- Timeouts will result in good behavior. Timeouts are merely a tool that interrupts undesired behavior. Use a complete discipline plan that includes tools for teaching and reinforcing the desired behavior in order to get the desired results.
- Timeouts give my child time to think about what he has done. The purpose of a timeout is to remove the child from all reinforcement, immediately stopping the behavior. Keep your timeouts brief and then transition back to opportunities for reinforcement. Sending your child to his room long enough to think about what he has done is not a timeout.
- The amount of time for the timeout should fit the seriousness of the problem behavior. Using longer timeouts might teach your child about justice (the time should fit the crime), but it won’t help change the behavior leading you to give your child a timeout in the first place. Timeouts are not about right and wrong; they are about stopping reinforcement. In fact, “timeout” is a shortened version of the technique’s full name, “time out from reinforcement.”
- Timeouts are too mild. Matching the discipline to the severity of the problem behavior may also teach your child about justice, but it will not change the behavior leading to the timeout. Use timeouts to stop problem behavior. A comprehensive discipline plan including timeouts is an effective tool for changing problem behaviors.
- Placing your child in a timeout shows the child who is in control. Timeouts remove reinforcement, and that is all. But discipline is not about exerting your will over the child, although it may feel like this is necessary in the moment of the problem behavior. Discipline is about teaching your child desired behavior.
- Physically forcing my child into a timeout is OK. If you have to physically restrain or force your child into timeout, you are doing it wrong, and the timeout won’t work. This reinforces all the wrong behaviors, and often increases the child’s misbehavior.
Remember that a timeout is a break in reinforcement. Timeouts do not teach desired behaviors. But used as part of a larger discipline plan built on a connected relationship with your child, timeouts can be effective for eliminating problem behavior.
For more information about timeouts and effective discipline, see:
APA’s ACT Raising Safe Kids program
Positive Parenting Tips from the CDC
Disciplining Your Child – HealthyChildren.org
Speaking of Psychology podcast – Disciplining Children Effectively (featuring Dr. Alan Kazdin)
Kazdin, A.E. (2013). Behavior modification in applied settings (7th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, ABPP, is John M. Musser Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University and Director of the Yale Parenting Center. He was the 2008 President of the American Psychological Association and is the author of 49 books for professional-audiences on topics of parenting and child rearing, child psychotherapy, cognitive and behavioral treatments, and interpersonal violence. His work has been translated in several languages throughout the world.
Lauren Fasig Caldwell, JD, PhD, is the Director of the Children, Youth and Families Office of the American Psychological Association.
Image sources: Flickr users THOR, Andy Grant, Harsha K R and Pabak Sarkar via Creative Commons
Dr. Kazdin, Thank you for this excellent information and clarification about time out. It is very much needed in parenting today. Sanford W. Bloom, Ph.D.
I’m so glad you made the point that the key to effective behavior management, is a warm connected relationship with your child. I do often cringe at the harsh ways people speak to their children, giving repeated warnings rather than acting in a calm and loving manner.
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I think this will be very helpful to parents, especially: “This stops the behavior in the moment. It does not stop the behavior in the future, and it does not teach the desired behavior. Those require additional steps, which are all part of an overall discipline plan.”
In regards to the “myth” of timeouts ‘Physically forcing my child into a timeout is OK. If you have to physically restrain or force your child into timeout, you are doing it wrong, and the timeout won’t work. This reinforces all the wrong behaviors, and often increases the child’s misbehavior.’
How am I supposed to get a wildly rebellious toddler into timeout if I cannot place him there?
Time out in the usual sense may not be the best procedure for this child. Of course, there are wall and flour time outs. Still, use of antecedents and stimulus control may be more likely to work and promote an environment where positive reinforcers can be earned for desirable behaviors. Behavior programs don’t always work well using just consequences. I leave further elaboration to Dr. Kazdin, who has taught me much.
Hello Dr. Kazdin. I’ve been looking for documented evidence of studies that narrowed down timeout effectiveness to two minutes or less. If you could provide any links or resources to cite that include everything from the sample, sampling method, testing methods, analysis of recorded data, etc. that would be appreciated. Pretty much any data that helps me prove beyond a reasonable doubt that that is true. Thanks!
Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis. New Jersey: Pearson Education.
Miltenberger, R. (2008). Behaviour Modification. Belmont, CA. Wadsworth Publishing.
I feel deeply saddened to read that these ancient practices are still advocated despite the neurological evidence of the negative effects for children and the negative effects on the relationship between parent and child.
This article talks only about modification of behavior, not about what we are: humans with complex behavior and emotions. It doesn’t ask why something happens. It just focusses on result. It doesn’t focus on forming relationships, even though it claims to. What kind of relationship is a relationship that sends someone away or ignores the other person when that person is in trouble?
What is the alternative? Many things. Numerous books have been written, stacked with scientific evidence.
To name one practical alternative:
But I guess it will take a whole career switch for the authors to admit the cruelty of the practice and really dive into a child’s world. And who wants to make that switch when you have a well paid job and such an easy pet peeve to sell?
A fellow psychologist
I was not aware that contentious opinions could be published here without writer identification. That being said, I would like to know where is that stack of scientific evidence that eschews time out as part of an ongoing positive reinforcement and teaching interpersonal environment, employing antecedents as well. Thank you.
“Neurological evidence of the negative effects for children.” Provide one citation saying time out has a negative impact. Just one. I’ll wait.
There are thoughts out there that state staying with your child while they are in the time out is better than leaving them alone, that it may foster feelings of abandonment and could escalate the child’s poor behavior.
I remember the time out was originally ‘designed’ in response to overwhelming number of child abuse cases, so the parent could take a time out and rethink their own strategy and so that they didn’t feel their own triggers kicking in, and in turn abuse their child physically. It seems it got turned around to a degree. You have to wonder about emotional abuses.
Although the child may have done something ‘bad’, the child doesn’t need to feel they are bad. That’s a huge difference. Staying wirh the child during a break from the action may be all they need to understand they are loved even though their behavior was not what the parent wants repeated.
I am a retired police officer studying psychology- family systems. The article is really thought provoking. Thanks so much.
Great article! I’m working on an article about time out and came across this article during my research. I found the addition of the discipline plan quite helpful! The goal of time out is adjusted behavior, as you’ve indicated. It’s great you’ve laid out a plan for parents to adopt to help get the desired behavior through time outs and not simply punish the child. Kudos!