When Time Out Doesn’t Work

I frequently meet with parents that tell me that Time Out doesn’t work. My response? Rubbish. Time Out works. Why didn’t Time Out work for you? Probably because you didn’t know how to do it. Time Out is not merely setting a kid in a corner or sending him to his room. It’s a fairly sophisticated behavior management tool that works very reliably and very consistently. If any of the necessary components are missing, it won’t work. When applied correctly, it very rarely fails to produce the desired results. Time Out works with children as young as 18 months. It is effective with 5 year-olds. It works with 12 year-olds, too. When you know how to use it skillfully, you can even get away with using it with kids that are 15-17 years old. When you fully understand what it is and how it works, you can employ the ideas in your dealings with other adults. That is, Time Out can be used on people 30, 40, or even 50 years old. When done correctly, I have NEVER, and I mean, NEVER seen Time Out fail.

So, how do we do Time Out? I will explain the basics here, but to truly do it correctly requires that you really understand it and that you do it correctly time and time again. That takes a great deal of practice and self-discipline. It often takes the guidance of a professional as well. Do not hesitate to consult a psychologist or a behavioral specialist for coaching on how to do Time Out properly.

  1. Time Out never works if there is no “Time In.” What “Time In” means is that there needs to be a loving, caring, fun, interesting, satisfying, nurturing, supportive environment that the child gets to enjoy whenever he is not in Time Out. If your home is chaotic and there is lots of arguing and yelling all the time and your child doesn’t really get to do anything fun in the first place, Time Out will not work.
  2. Time Out is a brief removal from Time In. That is a philosophical point you must get into your head to do Time Out properly. Time Out is not a punishment. It is a removal from reinforcement. That is, when your child misbehaves, he is sent to Time Out to be briefly removed from all the good stuff to send him the message that he only gets all the good stuff while he’s following the rules.
  3. Time Out is over when it’s over. When a child goes to Time Out, sits there quietly, and the time runs out, he is released from Time Out and it is over. No holding grudges, bringing it up over and over, reminding him of how he had Time Out for that yesterday or last week or last month. When it is over, it is over.
  4. Time Out needs to be brief. Learning only occurs from the moment they settle down and get quiet until they forget why they are sitting there. That moment of time is anywhere from about 10 seconds to about 5-6 minutes, depending on the age and maturity level of the child. While they are crying and screaming and carrying on, they haven’t fully gotten all the learning yet. Once they settle down, you begin the timer and Time Out needs to end just a few moments later. Time Outs that last 15, 20, or 30 minutes are not effective.
  5. Time Out needs to be a removal from Time In. In order for that to happen, the child cannot continue participating in whatever was going on. That is, he shouldn’t be able to see or hear a show he was watching, he should not be able to keep yelling at his brother, and he should not get to keep hearing from you. When a child is in Time Out, you do not need to talk to them about anything other than gently reminding them that their time will begin when they are quiet. Once they quiet down and the timer begins, do not converse with the child until the timer goes off.
  6. Time Out must be consistently used for whatever behavior you are trying to extinguish. You cannot use Time Out for some occurrences of the behavior and let other instances of the behavior go. You cannot forego Time Out simply because it’s inconvenient.
  7. Time Out should be administered firmly and with authority, but there is absolutely no need to yell or say demeaning statements to your child. You need to inform them that they have Time Out and what they did to get the Time Out and that’s about all that needs to be said. You do not need to answer their arguments or yell to be louder than them. You simply need to start the timer when they settle down and not respond to them until the timer goes off.
  8. Time Out may need to be modified for children with mental retardation, developmental delays, and psychiatric disorders. You should always consult a professional for assistance in using Time Out with those special populations.

Time Out always works when it is done correctly. I’m sure there must be an exception somewhere, but in all my years of practice, I have not yet seen it.

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