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:
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.