Are Time-Outs Good or Bad for Children?

There has been a big debate around whether time-outs are good or bad for children. Some experts say that time-outs may be bad for children… if they are conducted in the wrong way. For example, if a parent doesn’t explain why the child is being put in time-out, then the learning opportunity is missed. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) believe that time-outs can be very effective for handling misbehavior if done correctly, so we have some great tips for using time-outs effectively.

Time-outs have a very specific purpose in managing a child’s behavior. They are meant to give children a break from the fun and your attention. Simply put, the time-out should be boring and un-stimulating. Let’s face it, sometimes time-outs are harder on the parent, though! Time-outs require a lot of patience and self-control from you. Since children don’t want to be in time-out, they often go to great lengths to get out of it and this can be very stressful and exhausting for parents. We’re sure that with some guidelines and tips, you can master time-outs and hopefully, breeze through bad behavior and enjoy the time you have with your little ones.

Let’s look at some common time-out mistakes.

Poor Communication

Being an effective communicator with your child when they misbehave and while initiating time out is absolutely crucial. Studies show that children don’t listen to about 40% of what their parents command them to do. It’s effective to identify what bad behavior leads to a time-out before it happens so that the child is well aware of what is unacceptable.

If you tend to have a temper and yell when your child pushes your buttons, time-outs will not be very effective. Experts say the best way to communicate a time-out to your child after he/she has misbehaved is by staying calm and using a firm voice as well as keeping conversation to a minimum. Less is best. Another common mistake parents make during time-out is lecturing their child about what they did wrong and giving them attention. Time-outs are for teaching children self-control and self-management skills for life.

More specific instruction and monitoring the length of time-out is probably necessary for a young child age 2-4 but it will be good to allow your child some more freedom with practicing their own self-management skills during a time-out as they get a little older. For example, you might say to your five-year-old, “Go to time-out and come back when you feel ready and in control.”

When your child has completed time-out, remember to briefly remind them of what rule that they broke that led to the time-out and then move on.


Inconsistency in time-outs is the main cause of children not responding to time-outs. Once mom or dad gives in once, the child knows he can convince them to do it again when he wants. We know it’s tough to stick to the same time-out plan when you’re not at home or in an inconvenient spot like the corn maze or the grocery store but consistency is the key to success and positive behavior transformation.

Along with initiating the time-out consistently each time your child misbehaves, you also need to keep your responses consistent every time. For example, if you’re out in public, don’t suddenly start lecturing your child while he’s in time-out.

Since many people may be involved in raising a child including another parent, grandparents, daycare, babysitter, etc., it’s important to communicate with those people about how to do a time-out so that everyone is on the same page and your child learns that a time-out from grandma is just as real as a time-out from mom or dad.

Inappropriate length of time outs

Sometimes it may be tempting to use a time-out as a chance to get some things done around the house while your child is sitting in his bedroom alone, but too long of time-out loses its effectiveness since children’s attention spans are short. They may learn the lesson faster with a two to five-minute time-out and resist misbehaving next time. The CDC says that the rule of thumb for the length of time-outs is one minute per year of age. For example, a three-year-old should sit in time-out for three minutes and a five-year-old should sit in time-out for five minutes.

Not praising the good

Research shows that children respond best to positive reinforcement and feedback when they are learning and growing. Children whose parents rarely acknowledge the good things that they do end up misbehaving more frequently to get their parent’s attention. The CDC suggests using very specific praise instead of vague praise. Therefore, even if it seems ridiculous to you, it means the world to your little one to hear, “Thank you for putting away those toys before I asked tonight!” Often, by reinforcing the good things that kids are doing, it prevents them from misbehaving since they are getting the attention that they want from you. Many parents forget how important it is to reinforce the good with young children.

The AAP says, “The best way to improve behavior is to give children a lot of attention when they are doing something you like and remove your attention when they are doing something you do not like.” When children are getting enough attention from you, they don’t have to act out to get your attention. Always lead and teach by example when it comes to showing your children appropriate ways to calm down when you’re upset. With good communication, consistency, appropriate time-out lengths and positive praise when you notice your child doing something good, you can master time-outs and hopefully minimize them so that you have more time to play and enjoy time with your little ones.

At Burdett Birth Center, we support the AAP’s recommendations for using time-outs to improve children’s behavior. For more information on parenting, you can visit our blog. We recommend speaking with your pediatrician if you have further questions on conducting time-outs effectively.

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