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A Time-Out and a Place



screaming child
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A typical toddler might require correction 100 to 150 times each day. No wonder parent and toddler are exhausted by bedtime! That’s a lot of work and fertile ground for conflict. Managing parent-child conflict may include the behavioral technique of “time-out.”


As any parent can tell you, raising preschool children requires training the child on the rules of belonging to a family and functioning in society. In a family, an individual is not always able to do as he wishes; sometimes he has to do what is best for the group. Much of a family’s work requires cooperation from all members. Winning cooperation from a toddler family member can be dicey.

Developmentally, preschool children are self-focused (egocentric) and have a strong need to be independent and to feel as if they are in control of just about everything.

Some children are born with temperaments that are more work than others, even within the same family. As therapists, we have developed a great respect for knowing a child’s developmental level and being aware of individual children’s temperaments.

For parents, it’s helpful to know a toddler requires a lot of limit-setting on a daily basis. Also, consider if the behavior you are expecting from your child is one that she is developmentally ready to produce. Remember, this age group is striving to establish independence. Pick your fights carefully and allow your toddler to have as much control over decisions and activities as you can tolerate.

In our practice we suggest a time-out be viewed as a brief reminder that a behavior is unacceptable. There may be moments of frustration where as a parent, you wish for a technique to change your child for the rest of his life. Training, however, requires consistent and repeated reminders of what to do, and what not to do. It’s also important to keep in mind that children learn from example, so keep track of your own behavior and how it might be influencing your toddler.

Time-out is a technique you can use for some of this social “training” and has the added benefit of giving a worn out parent a quick break. Here is our lowdown on using time-out.

  • Pick a time-out room as opposed to a chair or corner. It could be a bedroom or study area in the house. You need to feel this room is safe for your child and free of anything you might worry could get broken

  • Set a timer your child can hear go off from her time-out room—but make sure it’s in a place where she can’t tamper with it.

  • Give your child a choice: “You can stop this [behavior] or you can go for a time-out.” If he doesn’t stop, assume he has made his choice and escort him to the time-out room.

  • Some behaviors might get an automatic time-out, for example, hitting another person out of anger or deliberately damaging another’s property.

  • Five to 10 minutes is usually enough for young children.

  • Once your child is in time-out and the timer is set, refrain from any interaction, including talking to your child, until after the timer goes off. “Can I come out yet?” will be answered by the timer. If you as a parent are feeling angry and frustrated, go to a different part of the house, away from your child, who may be yelling and attempting to get you to respond.

  • If your child will not stay in the time-out room, you can give her a choice: “Either stay in the room or I will close the door.” You may need to close and hold the door shut until the timer goes off. Once you have put your child in time-out, try to not go back into the room until the time is up. Think of time-out as removing your child (briefly) from the family group because of unacceptable behavior. The parent going into the time-out room during a time-out works against your goal of removing her from interaction.

  • Once the timer goes off, if your child is relatively calm, briefly explain why she ended up in time out and move on. If your child is not calm when the timer goes off, give time for her to regain her composure, give your explanation and move on.


Helping an independent-minded toddler learn to cooperate with the larger needs of a family and society is an ongoing, daily undertaking. Time-out can be a useful tool to remind children about acceptable behavior. Keep in mind your own behavioral example, as well as your child’s temperament and developmental level. Using the aforementioned guidelines will help ensure time-out is a success for parent and toddler alike.

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Write to them in care of editorial@familytimes.biz. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being.






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