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It's Time for a Time-out

Kevin Grassi, MD, Pediatric Resident

One of the most frequent questions I get from parents is: "My three year-old constantly throws tantrums and won’t listen to me. What can I do?"

The first step I take is to get to the heart of the issue. There are many factors that affect a child’s behavior including parenting styles, family stress or even a medical illness. By talking through the issue, I get a better idea of what is causing the behavioral problems.

However, the conversation often leads to disciplinary strategies. Today I want to focus on time-outs.

Time-outs can be very effective when they are used correctly. They work best for children ages 2-5 years old, but can work for older children as well. Here are 4 steps to making time-outs work well:

  1. Set the rules
    It is important that kids know beforehand what is expected of them. Before going to the mall you might say “I want you to stay with mom and not wander off.” At home make sure the rules are well known. Set the expectations early and review them often.
  2. Choose an appropriate time-out spot
    A time-out should feel like punishment. Therefore, you should pick a spot that has no distractions. A good option is a chair in a quiet corner of the house. The couch in front of the TV is not a good spot because it is too distracting. In addition, the child’s bedroom likely has many fun and distracting toys. The time-out location should also feel safe to your child.
  3. Starting the time-out
    Give one warning when your child is acting out. If the behavior continues, start the time-out. Explain clearly and briefly why he is getting a time-out. You should try not to show any emotions. It’s important not to get mad or yell. Do not respond to any pleading or give a second chance. The first few times you will likely have to carry the child to the chair and hold him there. This is OK. After a couple of times the child will get the idea and be able to sit by himself.
  4. Setting time limits
    You can use a timer so that the child knows when the time-out is over. The rule of thumb we recommend is 1 minute for each year of the child’s age. For example, a two-year-old can sit for 2 minutes, and a 4-year-old for 4 minutes.

These guidelines were adapted from the AAP’s website,

Click here for more information.

Ada Fenick, MD, FAAP
Erin Nozetz, MD, FAAP