Use Self-Control Time-outs

Time-outs are one of the most misunderstood and misused discipline tools around.5 Myths and inaccurate information thrive among parents and professionals. Most parents are familiar with the ineffective time-out process: make children go to a chair, room, or isolated spot every time they misbehave. The parent sets a timer (one minute for every year in age), and the parent makes sure the child has no fun while there. Everything about this time-out is decided and controlled by the parent. This type of “power time-out” is punishment and implies, “You are bad and I’m going to make sure you suffer for what you did.” When you think a time-out is needed, ask yourself, “Do I want to give my children a chance to feel better and behave more constructively, or do I simply want to shame them or control their behavior?”

Imagine, for a moment, that you are so angry you are ready to lose control. If someone made you sit still in a chair and say nothing one minute for each year of your age, could you do it? Who says it should take me 40 minutes to calm down and my son 15 minutes? What if we’re calm sooner and still have to sit there? Would you feel better or more angry? Would you feel resentful and think about revenge? Most parents would agree that “power” time-outs wouldn’t work for them if they were angry. So why do we think this will work with children who usually have poorer anger management skills than we do?

Healthy, effective time-outs meet each of the “Four R’s of Discipline.”

Since the purpose of healthy time-outs is to regain self-control, they are only logically related to behavior that suggests the child has lost control. (Otherwise, use another, more appropriate discipline tool.) Time-outs are usually only appropriate for very disruptive or aggressive behavior that


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could possibly be harmful to the child or others, such as hitting, biting, or throwing. Actually, time-out is a Keep Your Cool tool, more than a discipline tool. (Parents wouldn’t look for it there, so I put it here!) Healthy time-outs are useful for parents and children. They provide a way to calm down, before anger (or misbehavior) gets out of control.

Reveal the plan in advance. Teach children, during a happy time, about the value of a cooling-off period and the importance of waiting until everyone feels better before trying to solve conflicts. Explain that the purpose of a time-out is to calm down, not to punish or to suffer. It is not a time to sit and think about how bad they are, to do work, to write sentences, or anything else that would be punishing or humiliating. Time-outs are a time to do whatever we need to do to feel better and work through upsetting feelings or bad moods. Our goal is to work through feelings so we can talk calmly about solutions to the problem.

Present time-outs in a respectful way. Time-outs are respectful only when children know the purpose is to help them feel better and work toward solving a problem. Shame and humiliation make them feel more discouraged and more motivated to misbehave. Present the time-out as a choice. A child can choose to do problem solving or calm down first. Ask, “Do you want to talk about this?” Or “What would help you most right now?” If children resist, change the focus of the choices as you follow through, as in the following example. 

  1. “Would you like to (positive behavior) or would you like to go to (your room or other place) and (anger energy release activity)until you calm down?”
  2. If children continue to resist and are still out-of-control, say, “I see you need to (“go to your room,” for example). Are you going to go by yourself, or do you need help?”
  3. If children don’t go on their own, say “I see you need my help.” Kindly and firmly guide them to the room (or other location). If they come out, it is often a sign that the child is an external recharger. (See the next section about choosing time-out locations.) If the child is an internal recharger, but is trying to get attention or power, say, “When you’ve calmed down, you can join me again and work out a solution.”
  4. If children cry and plead, “I’m calm! I’ll be good,” say, “I’ll know you are calm and ready to come out when I hear you’ve ____.” Give a mental checklist, such as “. . . stopped crying and are breathing and talking calmly.” Stay calm yourself and ignore any attention-seeking behavior. Often, you will hear them doing each suggestion in order!

If we fail to present each escalating step as a choice, it turns the time-out into a power play. Ultimately, if we consistently follow through with this plan, children begin to put themselves into time-out. This is an excellent sign that they are learning self-control and recognize when they are about to lose control. 

Select a location for the time-out. Involve children (if old enough) in selecting the location of time-outs; almost anyplace is appropriate. Remember the different recharge styles you learned about in the Keep Your Cool Toolset, internal and external. Decide whether the child needs a lack of stimulation and isolation (internal) or company and stimulation (external) to calm down and recharge their energy. Select a location according to the needs of the individual child, according to the following categories:”

  • Internal recharge children will benefit from the privacy of their rooms or any place away from others. They might also benefit from being outside by themselves. If these children don’t get enough time alone, their behavior can deteriorate. If they are in a group and can’t be alone, teach them to find a quiet corner or sit slightly out of the group. Don’t pressure internal recharge children to stay in a group. The interruptions and demands rob them of energy.
  • External recharge children get their energy from people. Being with people helps them calm down. Traditional time-outs, which isolate children, can make their behavior worse! They often


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grieve as though they were being rejected, crying even harder when alone. If children won’t stay in their rooms, follow parents, or their behavior escalates when they are alone, it is a good sign they are external rechargers. Let these children take a time-out on your lap, a chair in the same room, or outside. If your comfort calms them down, they are surely external rechargers. If they don’t calm down, they may be seeking attention. Offer a gentle hug, while ignoring bids for attention. (Gentle touch is the key here. Avoid squeezing or using any other excessive force.)

Some parents hesitate to use a child’s room for fear the child will view the bedroom as a prison. If the time-out is presented respectfully and the goal is to give the child and parent some quiet space, it will seem like a safe place, not a punishment. If you are in public, a restaurant for example, you can use a progressive time-out, where each step removes the child farther from the action.

A Personal Story. Whenever we waited for a meal when our children were young, we’d pass the time with quiet activities (Step A:Prevent the problem). Sometimes, one of the kids would get too wound-up at the table or begin to throw a tantrum. We Acknowledged their feelings and Set limits, “I know it’s hard to wait when you’re hungry, but we all need to be quiet so we don’t bother others while they’re eating.” (Steps B and C1). We’d try to Redirect their behavior by focusing on the activities they could do (Step C2). If the tantrum began to escalate, we’d Reveal discipline (Step C2), “If you’re too loud, we’ll need to leave the table.” If the behavior didn’t subside, my husband or I would begin our public time-out plan. (I’ll use my daughter and me as an example.)

I’d take her by the hand and walk to the bathroom saying, “Let’s wash our hands.” If she resisted, I’d gently pick her up and carry her quickly. Once in the bathroom, I would talk to her gently and firmly as we washed our hands. If she was having a tantrum, I’d try to soothe her by acknowledging her feelings while setting firm limits. If her tantrum started to echo, I’d offer a new choice, “You can settle down here and go back to the table or we can go outside.” She usually settled down. If she didn’t, I’d make a hasty retreat out the door.

We’d sit outside, somewhere away from the door. I’d put my arm around her gently, but firmly enough to prevent her from flailing her arms or legs or leaving. I’d say, “When you stop crying and calm down, we can go back inside.” I’d take a deep breath, loud enough for her to hear, so I could model calming down. (I usually needed it to keep my cool!) I’d try to ignore her behavior, distracting myself by looking at cars, people, trees blowing in the wind—anything to help me stay calm and detached from her tantrum. If she begged to go back inside or was getting more upset, I’d remind her that we could go back inside, when she calmed down.

Once she had stopped crying, I’d help her wipe her tears and compose herself. I’d give her a hug, acknowledge her feelings, and get an agreement for her future behavior. We’d walk back to the table and get her involved in an activity or her food, if it had arrived. We only had to use this plan several times. Our kids quickly learned the consequence for disruptive behavior in public and chose to be involved in the fun activities or conversation we offered. We have even received compliments from strangers about our children’s patience and behavior in public.

Time-out activities. We want to structure time-outs so children can learn to calm down and regain self-control. When discussing time-outs with children ask, “When you feel like you’ve lost control, what can you do to feel better?”Many parents are upset if their children are happy to go to their rooms or play while in time-out. This is buying into the “kids must suffer” belief of punishment.

If children play during time-out, it shows they have regained some self-control; the time-out worked. Don’t worry that children will misbehave so they can go in a time-out. We aren’t “rewarding” misbehavior by allowing children to play; we are teaching them anger/stress management techniques to help them regain self-control. Eventually, children will put themselves in time-out before they lose control. Also, children don’t have to come out of the time-out if they don’t want to—unless they are trying to avoid problem solving.


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Use the Keep Your Cool Toolset to offer suggestions for what children can do while in the time-out to channel their verbal and physical anger energy. Combine the anger energy and recharge style ideas to plan the most appropriate time-out for each child’s individual needs. Here are a few examples:

 Child’s Anger/Recharge Style

Verbal anger, internal recharge


Verbal anger, external recharge


Physical anger, internal recharge


Physical anger, external recharge 

Appropriate Time-Out Activities

Scream in a pillow in their room, color, draw, read, write, listen to tapes, sing to self or play quietly.

Talk to a friend, parent, or stuffed animal, sit on a nearby chair or a parent’s lap.

Hit a pillow or punching bag. Pound an inflatable hammer in their room. Outside they can take a walk, run around the yard, or swing alone. 

Swing or play catch outside with a parent or friend.

If you think children will be destructive, plan ahead by removing things you don’t want destroyed. Suggest physical anger energy activities to channel the energy in an appropriate way. If children destroy their own toys, they’ll experience the result of no longer having the toy. Don’t buy any new toys (except holiday gifts) until they show that they can respect the toys they have. If parents can stay calm, they can “coach” children through the anger energy activities.

 A Graduate’s Story. When my 12-month-old toddler began to scream and hit, I scooped her up and took her to her room. There, I would find something she was allowed to hit. She particularly liked shaking a pair of maracas. I would help her hold the maracas and show her how to shake them or bang them on her bed. I would reflect her feelings and coach her, saying things like, “That’s it! You’re really angry, aren’t you? Bang those maracas!”

Soon, when I took her to her room, my daughter grabbed the maracas herself. Then I only needed to help her get to her room. Eventually, all it took was a suggestion to “go to your room and get your angry energy out.” At 18 months, my daughter was putting herself in time-out! Better yet, she used words (instead of screams) to express her feelings. What shocked me most, was that I started this process before she could talk, so as my daughter began talking, she immediately used the verbal skills I had taught her. I realized that my daughter was understanding and learning before she could put the skills into practice on her own. When she was able, she used the anger management skills I had taught her.

Plan a reasonable length of time. Avoid using timers and allow children to return when they have regained self-control or show they are ready to act appropriately.

I don’t know who thought of the idea of setting a timer for one minute per year of age, but I wish I had a dime for every time someone has repeated that time-out rule. Timers teach children that they don’t have to calm down until the timer goes off. Also, if children show they have calmed down and the timer hasn’t stopped, it turns the time-out into a power struggle. Timers also make the parent responsible for controlling the child, instead of the child developing self-control.

A Personal Story. Before my friend Vickie moved, we tried to have lunch several times. Every time, she had to leave due to her three-year-old son’s behavior. One of Vickie’s strengths as a parent was her consistency in following through. She had learned that time-outs were to be “one minute for every year of age.” When her son didn’t settle down, she’d give him a choice: he could either settle down or go in a time-out. When he didn’t calm down, she made him sit on a chair and


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set her watch for three minutes. Within about 30 seconds, her son calmly sat there and explained what he had learned and described what he would do differently. He seemed sincere. Since Vickie said the time-out would last three minutes, her son had to wait the full three minutes. He started pleading to get out of the time-out. After two minutes, he was crumbling into a tantrum again, this time from not getting out of the time-out.

Vickie warned him that if he didn’t calm down by the end of the three minutes, another three minutes would be added. When three minutes were up, he still wasn’t calm. Vickie gave her son a new choice; if he didn’t calm down when this three minutes was over, they’d go home. Again, the same thing happened—he calmed down before the time was up and a power struggle developed over whether he could come out of the time-out. This time, when he was crying at the end of the time-out, Vickie left. That was what she said, so that was what she had to do. We never did finish a meal together. Her son smiled as his mother left the boring lunch setting and I stayed and finished lunch with my kids, who had watched the entire spectacle.

I want to emphasize that Vickie is a terrific parent. She, like many other parents and professionals, had heard commonly accepted (but ineffective) information about time-outs and consistency. Her experience shows that even using a power tool in a respectful way will still produce a power struggle.

When a time-out is over: 

  • If the behavior that caused the time-out was serious or is a recurring problem, you can do some brief problem solving when the time-out is over. This type of time-out is a step toward discipline; before any further discussion or problem solving occurs, both parties must calm down. This time-out ends when the child is calm enough to do brief problem solving.
  • If the time-out was simply a matter of calming down, don’t discuss the misbehavior further. It will only call attention to the behavior you want to stop. This type of time-out is a discipline in itself. Its focus is on learning or practicing anger management and respectful assertive communication skills.