Are You Using Time-Outs Correctly?

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Sad little girl sitting in a corner

A new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that the vast majority of parents are not using time-outs correctly.

In general, a time-out is used to manage a child’s misbehavior or improper action. Time-outs can be started when a child is 15-18 months old and can continue up to the preteen years.

There is now ample evidence proving that the proper use of time-out is indeed effective in reducing aggressive and non-compliant behaviors. Yet in the just-published AAP study—which sought to determine the degree to which parents use time-outs successfully or not—many parents stated that time-outs did not work.

A time-out is based on removing positive reinforcement for a set period of time.

Mason Gomberg-001R WEB72

Mason Gomberg, MD

This would include withholding attention from parents, siblings, pets or playmates, as well as access to physical objects such as computers, TV, iPads, toys and books.

A good rule of thumb for parents is for the number of minutes in a time-out to equal the age of the child (e.g., 4 years = 4 minutes). If the misbehavior is repeated, the length of the time-out should be increased or even doubled.

Very important: When a time-out is over, the child needs to be told that he/she is loved, given a short reason why they were in time-out and then made to understand that if they exhibit the same behavior again, they will have another time-out which will be even longer.

The AAP study noted that most parents did not follow the evidence-based time-out practices.

The most common mistake, the study found, was giving the child multiple warnings before putting him/her in time-out. For example, some parents told the child things like, “I’m going to count to three. One…two…two-and-a-quarter…two-and-a-half….” Or they talked to the child during time-out, or they allowed the child access to toys, books, electronics or other people.

All of these parent behaviors undermine and even negate the purpose and effectiveness of time-out.

When and how to put a child in time-out

Ideally, a parent should give one warning prior to imposing a time-out. If the warning is not heeded, a time-out is warranted, with a short reason for why (no hitting, no biting, etc.). There should be no stimulation during time-outs, and that includes talking to the child. If the child tries to escape from “detention,” the parent should return the child to the time-out area with minimal interactions and should restart the time.

At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we believe in time-outs.

With years of experience helping parents raise happy, healthy kids, we can honestly say that from time to time, time-outs serve an important role in a child’s growing-up process. Take it from us—if done properly and consistently, time-outs will work, will create healthy boundaries in your child’s world and will make life a lot easier in the future!

Got questions? Want to talk about time-outs or any other aspect of your child’s health? Please make an appointment to come in and see one of our WHP pediatricians. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

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By Mason Gomberg, MD, a pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics.

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About the Author: ML Ball