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How to Use Time-Out Like a Pro to Improve Your Child’s Behavior

When I worked as a child therapist, I found that many parents are quick to say that they’ve tried time-out and it didn’t work. But did you know that there are specific techniques for using time-out effectively?  And that many parents aren’t actually using these techniques?

Before I get into some research-based techniques for using time-out effectively, I want to emphasize that discipline should always be fair and reasonable.

Also, discipline shouldn’t be the main parenting strategy that you use in order to get your child to listen.  There should instead be more of a focus on what your child is doing correctly.  Therefore, be sure to focus more on praising and acknowledging your child’s good behaviors in order to reduce the risk of your child engaging in misbehavior.

Before Thinking About Time-Out, Know This…

In order for time-out to work, you need to first establish a strong relationship with your child.  And how do you do this?… By spending quality time with your child and by praising and rewarding your child for good behavior.  You also do this by setting reasonable expectations and boundaries for your child.

Furthermore, your child is more likely to listen to you if you are consistent with your parenting strategies.  And if you are really having a hard time getting your child to listen to you, take my FREE 5-day course:
Now that you know that, here is a Step-By-Step Guide to Using Time-out Effectively:


How to Use Time-Out Effectively

Before the problem behavior even occurs, make sure you:

  • Choose a neutral spot for time-out. Time-out should be boring, so your child shouldn’t be able to play with or grab anything from the designated time-out spot. The spot should be free from distractions, including access to other people. You should be able to keep an eye on your child while he’s in time-out to make sure that he’s completing time-out and not playing. Try to avoid sending your child to his bedroom, as bedrooms are usually full of distractions.
  • Have a back-up plan in mind in case the designated spot is not working. (Say, for instance, you have company over that day). Whenever you leave the house, try to scope out places for potential neutral time-out areas. Also, have a back-up plan in mind for a privilege that could be removed in case your child becomes very defiant during the time-out.
  • Know which behaviors warrant a time-out. But try to use time-out for only one or two types of behavior. Also, know which behaviors you are not going to use time-out for. Keep in mind that for some behaviors, ignoring is a more effective technique than discipline.  You can read more about planned ignoring here.  Sometimes other behaviors that you don’t have a plan for will pop up.  Therefore, you’ll need to decide in the moment whether a time-out is warranted for those behaviors.
  • Have a timer ready. You want your child to know that you’re being fair.  So using a timer or a clock instead of keeping track of time in your head will help to show that you’re being objective.
  • Praise good behaviors regularly.  If you sense your child is becoming irritable, then praise him for the things that he’s doing that are right.  This will give him a better chance of staying on track with good behavior and can sometimes prevent the need for a time-out later.  Just be sure that you’re not praising your child only when he’s irritable.


When the problem behavior occurs:

  1. Give 1 warning that if your child does the behavior again, he’ll go to time-out. (For more severe behaviors like hitting and kicking, place your child in time-out without warning).
  2. Begin time-out immediately after the behavior.
  3. You may need to (gently) physically prompt your child to time-out, particularly if your child is younger.
  4. Briefly label the misbehavior that your child is being placed in time-out for before you start the timer.
    • For instance: “You are going to time-out for hitting.”
  5. Tell your child that the time-out starts once he is sitting quietly, and then start the timer once your child is sitting quietly. The time-out should be 1-2 minutes for every year of your child’s age and should be proportionate to the behavior.
    • For instance: If your child is 6 years old, place her in time-out for at least 6 minutes. If the behavior she engaged in was major, you may place her in time-out for up to 12 minutes.
  6. Once the time has started, ignore talking, name-calling, arguing, noises, and stomping. Do not interact with or look at your child during this time.
  7. However, if your child gets too loud or gets up from the time-out, return your child to the time-out. You can either move your child to a more secluded area at this point or give your child a warning that he’ll lose a particular privilege if he doesn’t remain in time-out. You can stop the timer while your child is out of the designated area.  But avoid adding on more time to the time-out or threatening to add more time, as this is generally not helpful.
  8. When the timer goes off and your child is quiet, label the misbehavior again (or you can have your child label it). Then, either ask or tell your child what a more appropriate behavior would be next time the situation arises. Avoid apologizing* (unless absolutely necessary) or hugging at this time, but you can hug and show more affection once your child does the next “good” behavior.
  9. You may then have your child leave the time-out spot. BUT… If a demand was placed on your child before the time-out, have your child complete that demand immediately.
  10. Praise your child for getting back on track as soon as you can after the time-out. Try to catch your child doing something good so that you can praise him.

Other Rules to Using Time-Out Effectively

  • Use time-out for the targeted behavior consistently, meaning every time your child does that behavior.
  • Be sure that other caregivers are using time-out the same way and for the same behaviors.
  • Use time-out consistently and correctly for at least 2-3 weeks before deciding that it is not effective and moving on to a different intervention. (However, if for some reason the use of time-out has become unsafe, you can stop using it before that point).
  • Whenever you begin using a new parenting strategy, expect your child’s problematic behaviors to increase for about a week or so before they get better.  This is just your child “upping the ante” to try to get the same response that he was used to getting before.
  • Do not use time-out as a way to exert power. Remember to be fair and reasonable.  And avoid getting into power struggles.
  • And finally, remember that you got this, mommy!  Finding what parenting strategies work is sometimes a matter of trial and error.  So don’t worry if time-out doesn’t work for the behavior you are targeting.

* I don’t want to confuse you when I say “Avoid apologizing,” so please allow me to clarify. You should absolutely take responsibility for any faulty actions that you take so that you’re being fair to your child. It also helps to model the ability to take responsibility for your actions and to apologize when necessary.  That way, your child will learn these social cues and use them in relationships. However, when using time-out, you don’t want to give your child mixed messages and take away from your message: that the time-out occurred because of _______ behavior. Also, parents oftentimes apologize after time-outs unnecessarily in order to overcompensate for the punishment. Therefore, it is suggested to avoid apologizing unless it absolutely makes sense and is necessary.

Need a little extra help with managing your child’s misbehavior?  Grab my FREE cheatsheet for mommies!


Disclaimer: Although I was a therapist before I became a stay-at-home mom, I am not your therapist or your child’s therapist. Reading this post does not enter you into a client-therapist relationship with me. The content in this post is meant to be used as a general guideline and has not been individually tailored to the needs of you and your child. If you are in need of therapeutic services, please seek the support of a mental health counselor or behavior specialist.

References: My information comes from years of training on Applied Behavior Analysis, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and other evidence-based techniques. I also like to refer to Russell Barkley and Alan Kazdin.


10 Comments on How to Use Time-Out Like a Pro to Improve Your Child’s Behavior

  1. Great time-out tips! I put most of these in place, but just realized that I may apologize too often. 😛 Oops. Being consistent with gentle time-out techniques have dramatically changed the behavior of my girls. Thanks for the great read!

  2. Thank you for the helpful tips! Why is hugging after not recommended? My daughter (4 years old) often wants hugs right after. 😐

    • Hi, Megan! Great question! If your child initiates the hug, that’s usually not a problem, as long as you’re giving your child plenty of hugs and the attention she needs throughout the rest of the day. The reason for this is that you don’t want your child to end up misbehaving in order to receive hugs. Instead of initiating a hug, I recommend getting your child back on track and then hugging or providing some form of praise once she does something good. (It can be a small good behavior). That way, you’re keeping time-out as a punishment without adding a reward at the end of it, yet you’re still showing your child that you’re there for her and you’re not mad at her. My daughter likes to hug me after time-out, too! Hope this helps! Thanks so much for reading! ~Angela

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