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How long should you place a child on timeout?

Disciplining our kids is the rent we pay for the privilege of being loved by a child; it’s vital. The trick is to stay in the realm of empathetic discipline without crossing over into the land of painful punishment.

Time Out Time-out means time out from positive reinforcement (rewarding experiences). It is a procedure used to decrease undesirable behaviors. The main principle of this procedure is to ensure that the individual in time-out is not able to receive any reinforcement for a particular period of time.

Amount of Time Spent in Time Out Generally, it is considered more effective to have short periods of time-out, 5 to 10 minutes, rather than to have long periods, such as half an hour to an hour. Children can fairly quickly begin to use their imagination to turn a boring activity into an interesting one. Children from 2 – 5 years old should receive a 2 to 5 minute time-out. A 6 year old child should probably receive about a 5 minute time-out while a 10 year old child would receive a 10 minute time-out. A general guideline can be: 6-8 years of age, 5 minutes; 8-10 years of age, 10 minutes; 10-14 years of age, 10 to 20 minutes. Some double the time-out period for such offenses as hitting, severe temper tantrums, and destruction of property. (Note: ADHD children may benefit from shorter times than those suggested above).

Procedures for Time Out

  • When a child is told to go into time-out, a parent should only say, “Time-out for….” and state the particular offense. There should be no further discussion.
  • Use a kitchen timer with a bell. Set the timer for the length of the time-out and tell the child he must stay in time-out until the bell rings.
  • While in time-out, the child should not be permitted to talk, and the parent should not communicate with the child in any way. The child also should not make noises in any way, such as mumbling or grumbling. He or she should not be allowed to play with any toy, to listen to the radio or stereo, watch television, or bang on the furniture. Any violation of time-out should result in automatic resetting of the clock for another time-out period.
  • It is important that all members of the household be acquainted with the regulations for time-out, so that they will not interfere with the child in time-out in any way, for example, by turning on the radio.

Strategies for Handling Refusal or Resistance

  • While time-out works well, it can only work when the child actually serves the time out. There are a number of ways to handle refusal. None of them will work of all children. You may have to experiment to determine which one will work for your child.
  • Tell younger children that you will count to three and if they are not in time-out when you get to three the time-out will be doubled.
  • Very difficult children, such as those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or Oppositional Defiant Disorder, may need to be placed on a short reward program. This could include a chart with 20 to 30 squares. Each time a child does a time-out, the child gets a star or sticker on the chart. When the chart is full they can earn a special treat for learning how to do time-out.
  • Use response cost. Select an activity or object you can take away. Tell the child that until they do the time-out, they will not be able to use the object or engage in the activity. For instance, you can remove the cord from the TV and tell them that they may not watch TV or play a video game until they do the time-out.

Positive Parenting

Discipline should be:

Firm: Consequences should be clearly stated and then adhered to when the inappropriate behavior occurs.

Fair: The punishment should fit the crime. Also in the case of recurring behavior, consequences should be stated in advance so the child knows what to expect. Harsh punishment is not necessary. Using a simple Time Out can be effective when it is used consistently every time the behavior occurs. Also, use of reward for a period of time like part of a day or a whole day when no Time Outs or maybe only one Time Out is received.

Friendly: Use a friendly but firm communication style when letting a child know they have behaved inappropriately and let them know they will receive the “agreed upon” consequence. Encourage them to try to remember what they should do instead to avoid future consequences. Work at “catching them being good” and praise them for appropriate behavior.

Positive Guidance Tips:

When considering alternatives to time outs, here are some basic things to remember:

  • Treat children with respect. Children who are treated with respect are more likely to treat others with respect.
  • Limit the number of rules. Have a few “family rules” which reflect what is most important to your family. Examples might be “Use positive words when talking about others”; “Everyone is home and sits down for dinner together”, etc. Your rules will be unique to your family and your values. If possible, have school-age children contribute to the development of your family’s rules. Word them positively if you can.
  • Give choices. When you can, give at least two choices, with both being acceptable outcomes. “Do you want to wear your brown pants or your green shorts today?”
  • Explain reason for the rule. “When you climb on the bookshelf, I get scared that you will fall.” Explaining the reasons for rules is not only a great technique for positive guidance, but it also communicates that your child deserves to understand what you are thinking and why.
  • Redirect children. Particularly with children under age three, if a child is persisting in a prohibited activity, redirect her to something else instead of giving time outs. Sometimes it is good to pair this with talking about the reason behind the rule. “Let’s play over here instead. You are dressed for school and I don’t want you to get your clothes wet. Let’s try this new game.”
  • Give warnings. “We are cleaning up your toys in 5 minutes and heading upstairs for bed.” Giving a warning shows that you consider your child’s play and work important.
  • Set limits and follow-through. Sometimes no matter how respectful and understanding you have been, and how many warnings you have given, children continue to push the limits. “I’m not going to clean up.” It may be because they are having fun and don’t want the interaction with you to end or it might just be that they are tired or filled with emotion and not sure how to move on. They need your positive guidance at that point. Stick with your limit. “Five minutes is up and now it is time to clean-up. Here, let me help you.” If limit setting results in tears or a tantrum, stay close by, be reassuring, but stick to the limit of playtime being over. You probably won’t be able to or want to rush through the tears or tantrum. “I know you really wanted to play longer. You are really upset. I’ll stay by you while you are sad and listen and then we’ll go brush your teeth.”
  • Listen to children. Listen to their feelings of why certain rules feel unfair. They may have really good alternatives. Remember that children, too, can have good ideas. If you can occasionally let them “have their say” that will go a long way another day. “Remember that yesterday we got to do the thing that you wanted to do? Well today it is daddy’s turn and we need to stop at the grocery store on the way home.”
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  • Child Development
  • Growth and Development


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