What Every Parent Should Know About Timeouts
9:10:19 2019-01-29 518

Timeouts are a disciplinary tool that is widely misunderstood and frequently misused. Everyone has heard of timeouts, and they seem simple to use. Your child does something wrong, you send her to sit by herself for some set period of time. But, perhaps surprisingly, this is all many parents know about timeouts.


The goal of a timeout, or of any disciplinary tool, is to improve your child’s behavior. When used correctly, timeouts are highly effective for achieving this goal. Decades of research demonstrate the effectiveness of timeouts (Kazdin, 2013). The timeout technique follows a simple logic. Attention feeds behavior. So, to stop the behavior, create a brief break in all types of attention – demands, threats, explanations, rewards, hugs – everything. This stops the behavior in the moment. It does not stop the behavior in the future, and it does not teach the desired behavior. Those require additional steps, which are all part of an overall discipline plan.


To be clear, timeouts are only a tool you can use to control the problem behavior while you work on replacing it with a desired behavior – the true objective of any form of discipline. So, how can you use timeouts effectively?


Timeouts should be:


  1. Used sparingly. They are only one technique in a discipline plan, so don’t over-rely on them. If you give more than one or two each day for the same behavior, that is too much.
  2. Brief. Research shows that timeouts’ positive effect on behavior is within the first one or two minutes (Kazdin, 2013). Extra time may satisfy your sense of justice, but it does nothing to change the behavior.
  3. Immediate. A timeout should follow the behavior that made the timeout necessary as soon as possible. Delayed timeouts are ineffective.
  4. Done in isolation from interaction with others. You can ignore your child for a brief period (where she otherwise might receive attention) or have her sit in a corner of a room (where it still might be reinforcing to see others). The key is to remove as many sources of reinforcement as possible. Attention is reinforcement because it increases the probability of the behavior it follows. Research shows that any form of attention, positive or negative, tends to increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring again (Kazdin, 2013).
  5. Administered calmly, not in anger or as an act of vengeance, but as an expected response to the behavior.
  6. Administered without repeated warnings. Make clear to your child before misbehavior which behaviors will lead to a timeout and what the timeout will be. Then be consistent about using timeouts when the behavior occurs, every time. Warnings lose their effect if not followed by consequences, and are unnecessary if your child has been told what to expect before the behavior occurs.
  7. Praised when completed. If your child goes to the isolated spot when asked, and completes the timeout, praise the specific behavior when complete: “It’s good that you went to timeout like I asked you, and that you sat quietly the whole time, that was wonderful.” Verbal encouragement should be combined with physical contact if possible – a gentle pat, high five, or other contact. Even though it may feel strange to praise your child as part of discipline, remember that actions followed by reinforcement will be strengthened and more likely to occur in the future. You want your child to comply with timeouts when they are necessary.
  8. Followed by a return to the task that was interrupted by misbehavior and timeout. Timeouts should not let your child off the hook of engaging in the behavior you want to see in the first place. This also provides an opportunity to positively reinforce the desired behavior, further strengthening the likelihood that your child will choose the desired behavior over the undesired behavior next time.


By Alan E. Kazdin, Psychology Benefits

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