Time-Outs for Toddlers: Are You Doing It Wrong?

cuckoo clockSo your child is a toddler now, and she's driving you crazy. You're thinking maybe it's time to try "time-outs" -- but how does that work, exactly? How long should it last? Should you give a warning? At what age do you start doing time-outs? What happens if it doesn't work?

All parenting experts say that time-outs should not be used as a punishment. Instead, it's a technique used to teach children how to calm down, reflect, and respect limits. Time-out is a chance for children to pull out of an intense emotional conflict or dangerous behavior.

So that's the "why." Here's how several parenting experts say we should use time outs.


1. Start around 18 months to 2 years: Dr. Sears recommends starting time-outs when your toddler is around 18 months old. On WebMD, pediatrician and author Jennifer Shu and author Elizabeth Pantly recommend the age of 2.

2. Keep it short: Dr. Sears says to keep it to one minute for every year of your child's age. (So two minutes for a 2-year-old.) What to Expect When You're Expecting says a time-out as short as 30 seconds to a minute is long enough to get the point across to a 3-year-old.

3. Pick the right location: What to Expect recommends you find a quiet location without any distractions, but not in the child's room or bed/crib. Those places should have only positive associations.

4. Keep calm and be consistent: Always give your child a warning and avoid using time-outs for first-time offenses. Dr. Sears recommends keeping it simple. No lectures, no waffling, and definitely no yelling or anger from you, the parent. Use a neutral tone of voice. If your child tries to leave, lead them back to their spot without making a big fuss. And remember, time-out can be for you, too.

5. Follow up: Shu and Pantly recommend having a short chat with your child after a time-out just to make sure they understand what happened and what choices you hope they'll make in the future.

6. Keep in mind, it's not for everyone: Shu says time-out isn't necessarily right for every child. "For some kids who just hate to be alone, it's a much bigger punishment than it's worth, especially with young toddlers. They get so upset because you're abandoning them that they don't remember why they're there, and it makes things worse."

Alternatives to time-out: Confession: I didn't use time-out for my son. I just didn't feel like it was right for him. So I looked for alternatives. Jean Illsley Clarke, author of Time-In, When Time-Out Doesn't Work, says time-outs often get overused. She created a system she calls Ask, Act, Attend: Ask yourself what lesson the child needs to learn and whether it can be taught through a time-out, act first to toward physical danger and then talk about it, and pay attention to what's happening now, and also to what values you want to teach your child. Natural Parents Network has more alternatives to time-outs.

Do you use time-out for your toddler? What are your tips?


Image via libertygrace0/Flickr

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