Althought Therapy

Are Timeouts a Safe and Effective Parenting Method?

In recent years, the use of “time outs” as a parenting strategy has sparked considerable debate. A timeout involves removing a child from a situation where they were misbehaving, isolating them from fun activities and parental engagement, often resulting in boredom.


Critics of time outs express concerns that they may negatively impact a child’s attachment to their parents, arguing that it is excessively punitive. They fear that time outs could make children feel dismissed and ignored, potentially damaging the parent-child relationship and even traumatizing the child, fostering a sense of fear associated with an overly authoritarian parenting style. However, supporters argue that time outs, when used properly, provide a secure environment that teaches children how to regulate their emotions and develop self-control.

A 2024 peer-reviewed article by Xu, Tully, and Dadds examined the safety and effectiveness of timeouts through two studies:

Effective Parenting Method

Study 1: Summary

This study involved 419 undergraduate psychology students aged 18-30. Over 56% of these students reported experiencing at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), such as abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence. Additionally, 82% had experienced timeouts during childhood. The findings suggested that timeouts, when applied appropriately and considering the child’s background and ACEs, were linked to better mental health outcomes. The results indicated that proper use of timeouts decreased the likelihood of avoidant attachment styles, emotional dysregulation, and other mental health issues.

Study 2: Summary

The second study included 535 participants within the same age range, with 68% reporting at least one ACE. Among these, 77.8% recalled the adversity as moderate to accurate. Over 86% had experienced timeouts as a child. The results corroborated those of the first study, showing that timeouts, when appropriately administered, did not correlate with poor mental health outcomes.

Summary of Findings from Both Studies

The evidence suggests that time-outs are a safe and effective method for managing misbehavior if used appropriately. There were no negative mental health outcomes for children as adults, as indicated by these studies. More importantly, time outs were most beneficial when parents remained calm and implemented them immediately after misbehavior, reinforcing the link between the misbehavior and its consequences. This approach helps children learn from their actions and supports their emotional regulation, ultimately contributing to better mental health in adulthood.

When Should Timeouts Be Used?

When your child engages in dangerous behavior, such as running into the street, a timeout helps to firmly establish that such actions are unacceptable. Similarly, if your child hurts another child, a timeout can be an effective way to underscore that hurting others is never permissible.

For infractions like breaking a family rule, children should already understand that this will result in a timeout, as these rules address behaviors that are clearly not allowed. It’s crucial that your child knows and comprehends the family rules, recognizing that violations will lead to a timeout.

If your child fails to follow directions after being warned, implementing a timeout can reinforce the importance of adherence to the family boundaries. Children are more likely to heed instructions if they receive praise for compliance or consequences for non-compliance. Should your child not respond to an initial warning, a timeout may be an appropriate response. Below, the process for issuing a timeout warning is outlined, enhancing clarity and expectation management.

Timeout Warning

When your child fails to follow your directions, issue a clear and simple timeout warning. Ensure your warning is stated as a firm statement, not a question, and delivered in a neutral tone. Consistently follow through with the timeout if your child does not comply with your directions. 

Let’s say your child is playing with their toys and starts throwing them around the room after being told it’s not allowed. You might handle it this way:

  1. Give a Clear Instruction: You see your child throwing the toys and say calmly, “Please stop throwing the toys. We don’t throw toys because someone could get hurt or the toys could break.”
  2. Issue a Timeout Warning: If your child continues to throw the toys despite your instruction, you calmly say, “If you throw your toys again, you will have to take a timeout.”
  3. Enforce the Timeout: If the behavior continues, follow through with the consequence. Calmly say, “Since you continued throwing the toys, now it’s time for a timeout.” Guide your child to a predetermined timeout area where they can calm down and think about their actions.
  4. Post-Timeout Discussion: After the timeout, revisit the issue. Say, “Throwing toys can hurt someone or break the toys. Let’s play safely.” This helps reinforce the lesson and provides closure on the incident.

This scenario demonstrates the importance of clear communication and consistent follow-through when using timeouts as a disciplinary measure.

Tips for Timeouts

  1. Clarify the Concept: Clearly explain or demonstrate what a timeout involves so your child understands what to expect. You might need to model this behavior multiple times for better retention.
  2. Practice Makes Perfect: Practice timeouts when both you and your child are calm. Afterwards, ask your child to explain what a timeout entails to ensure comprehension.
  3. Define Consequences: Make it clear which behaviors will result in a timeout by discussing family rules and the associated consequences for breaking them.
  4. Establish a Timeout Spot: Inform your child about where timeouts will take place. Ensure they know both the rules and the steps involved in the process.
  5. Consistency is Key: Apply timeouts in a consistent manner. Predictable steps enhance the effectiveness of timeouts in addressing misbehavior.
  6. Start with One Behavior: Initially, focus on correcting a single problematic behavior, such as biting, to help your child adapt to the process.
  7. Immediate Action: Implement a timeout immediately following a misbehavior to reinforce the connection between the action and the consequence.
  8. Avoid Empty Threats: Never threaten a timeout without following through. Failure to execute will make your child question the seriousness of the consequences.


Alternatives to Timeouts

While research has supported that the use of timeouts can be beneficial to your child, diversifying your parenting methods can be beneficial overall. Here are some other ways that you can support your child when misbehavior occurs.

  • Positive Reinforcement: Encourage desired behaviors by rewarding them with verbal praise, stickers, or extra playtime. This method increases the likelihood of these behaviors recurring.
  • Natural Consequences: Let children face the natural outcomes of their actions safely. For example, if a child breaks a toy by throwing it, they can no longer play with it.
  • Logical Consequences: Implement consequences that directly relate to the misbehavior. If a child fails to put away their toys, they may be temporarily prevented from using them.
  • Redirection: Redirect a child’s focus from inappropriate to suitable activities. If a child is drawing on walls, offer them paper or take them to a chalkboard.
  • Setting Clear Expectations: Before potential misbehavior, clearly outline rules and expectations, ensuring they are age-appropriate.
  • Time-In: Rather than isolating the child, use this time to discuss their behavior, teach appropriate responses, and express feelings constructively. This approach is beneficial for attention-seeking younger children.
  • Modeling Appropriate Behavior: Demonstrate the behaviors you wish to see in your child, such as patience, calmness, and respect, as children often emulate adult behaviors.
  • Withdrawal of Privileges: Remove privileges related to the misbehavior. For instance, misusing a computer may result in losing computer privileges.
  • Cool-Down Periods: Offer a designated calm space where the child can independently calm down, equipped with soothing items like stuffed animals or books, aiding in self-regulation.
  • Structured Choices: Provide options that are acceptable to you, giving the child a sense of autonomy while guiding them toward appropriate behavior.


These strategies focus on teaching and guiding rather than punishing, fostering appropriate behavior through understanding and reflection instead of fear.



Original Research Article:

CDC: What is Time-Out?