Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2018;97(10):online

See related article on general parenting strategies

Time-out is an effective way for parents to stop bad behaviors in their child. For time-out to work, you must do it the same way every time. Also, make sure to reward good behavior often when the child is not in time-out. For example, give a pat on the shoulder or a hug, give your child praise, or start a sticker chart.

Preparing for the Use of Time-Out

  • Put a timer where the child can see it. Although a smartphone timer is fine, an inexpensive, portable kitchen timer also works well.

  • Pick a good spot for time-out. During time-out, the child should not be able to hear the radio or other music, hear or see the television, or be able to look out a window. The time-out spot shouldn't be the child's bedroom or someplace a lot of people will be walking through. It shouldn't be uncomfortable or confining (like a closet). There should be nothing dangerous or poisonous nearby.

  • Only use time-out for the most problematic behaviors, like hitting a brother or sister or not following important directions.

  • You should be very clear with your child about which behaviors will result in time-out and how time-out works. It may help to walk your child through the process of time-out and let your child know what happens if he or she does not stay in time-out. Only use time-out for the behaviors you have decided on ahead of time and have talked about with your child.

Using Time-Out

  • Once a behavior that you've decided will result in time-out occurs, quickly explain in a matter-of-fact way that the child must go to time-out and why. Stay calm and walk or carry the child to time-out. Don't speak to the child or make eye contact.

  • Set the timer for one minute for each year of the child's age up to five minutes.

  • If the child screams or gets up before the time is up, place the child back in time-out without talking to or looking at the child, and reset the time. The child must be quiet for the entire time before leaving time-out. Make sure to stay busy and out of view of your child during time-out. Remind brothers and sisters and others that they should not interact with the child who is in time-out.

  • Once the time-out is over, the child should have a clean slate. Don't dwell on the problem behavior or let it influence how you treat the child after the time-out. If necessary, ask the child to apologize (for example, to the person he or she hit) or to clean up a mess caused by the problem behavior.

  • Make sure that time-in is pleasant. Look often for chances to praise or reward your child for good behavior.

Tips if Time-Out Isn't Working

  • Make sure you are using time-out the same way every time

  • Make sure the child isn't being warned multiple times before time-out is started

  • When a child is in time-out:

    - Don't look at the child

    - Don't talk to the child

    - Don't talk about the child

    - Remain calm and do not show anger

    - Monitor from close by, but not in the same room

    - Be consistent and don't give up

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