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How To Do an Effective Timeout

Remember: As a parent, your job is to give your child unconditional love and support -- but also to demonstrate that when you misbehave, there are consequences for your actions.
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Little girl having a temper tantrum with her desperate mother in background
Little girl having a temper tantrum with her desperate mother in background

"I'm being haive!"
-- 2-year-old when his mother told him told to behave

If you've ever battled with your children to get them to behave, you know how good they can be at pushing the limits -- and your buttons! Maybe your kid is defiant ("No! I won't!") Maybe your kid makes smart-alecky comments ("But YOU didn't brush YOUR teeth, yet!") Or maybe your kid knows exactly how to make you feel guilty ("Why are you so meaaan? You don't love me!") Whatever the scenario, your job is to calmly set limits and teach your children that there are consequences for their behavior at home -- and out in the world.

Enter... timeout.

When used correctly, a timeout can be a powerful tool for getting children to cooperate.

But many parents don't know how to "do" a timeout effectively.

If your child is between ages 4 and 8 -- the optimum ages for a time-out to work -- the following tips can help.

3 Tips For Parents Whose Kids Just Won't Cooperate.

1. Remember the purpose of a timeout.

The purpose of a timeout is to teach your child that when you disobey the rules, there are consequences. Unappealing consequences.

One of those consequences is temporarily having all the "fun stuff" (friend time, family time, TV, books, games, coloring supplies) go on "pause."

Timeouts should never be used to make your kid feel ashamed, ridiculed or afraid. They're not supposed to be "scary." They're supposed to be unappealing.

On that note...

2. Pick a boring area.

Choose an area for timeout that's easy for you to monitor (like a chair in the kitchen) and away from "interesting things" (like toys, people, TV or windows).

Don't let your child take anything to the timeout area (like a book or a pet). The idea is to remove all sources of "fun" and "entertainment."

It's best not to use your child's bedroom or study space for a timeout.

Timeout should feel "different" than the rest of your child's day.

3. Start with two minutes.

Assuming your child is at least 4 years old, consider starting with a two-minute timeout.

If your child misbehaves during those two minutes -- whining, squirming, fussing or leaving the timeout area -- then you should re-set the timer, starting the timeout all over again.

Like many children who have been getting away with misbehaving for a long time, when one of my clients recently introduced timeout, her daughter rebelled.

This mom had to be very patient, and keep re-setting the timer until her daughter got the message: "If you misbehave during the timeout, the timeout gets longer. If you sit quietly, the timeout will be over faster."

During that two-minute period, don't lecture or scold your child. Your job is simply to monitor them, and re-set the timer as needed. Their job is simply to sit quietly.

The timeout is over when you say, "Timeout is over."

Last but not least ...

You can prevent timeouts by setting rules, clearly.

Before you give your kid a timeout, explain how it works.

Have a conversation with your child and describe:

  • Which misbehaviors will lead to a timeout.

  • Where the timeout will happen.
  • How long it will last.
  • Show your child the timer you will use.
  • Explain that if there's any misbehavior, your child will get ONE warning ("This behavior must stop, or you'll get a timeout.")

    Explain that if there's any misbehavior during timeout, this means that the timeout starts over (and gets longer).

    Remind them that the time-out starts when they become quiet and ends when you say, "Time-out is over."

    Have your child repeat the process back to you so you know they understand.

    Remember: As a parent, your job is to give your child unconditional love and support -- but also to demonstrate that when you misbehave, there are consequences for your actions.

    Be calm. Be firm. Be consistent.

    In doing so, you'll give your child a gift that will serve them their whole life long. The gift of knowing "right" from "wrong."

    Dr. Suzanne Gelb is a clinical psychologist and professional life coach based in Hawaii.

    She does a regular parenting segment for a local TV station, and offering sane, practical tips to families is one of her specialties!

    Suzanne's powerful insights have been featured on more than 200 radio programs, 200 TV interviews, and too many articles to keep score. Step into her virtual office at and discover how to be the best parent you can be -- with ease.

    And while you're there, check out her new Life Guide on How To Get Your Kids To Cooperate. Peace, quiet and tantrum-free dinners can be yours.

    This article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as psychological advice or as a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional.