Time-outs are a highly effective method to decrease problem behaviors. Before we can even being to utilize them, we need to define which behaviors will and will not result in time-outs. Because this issue is so important, our first blog in this series will focus exclusively on it. While implementing a time-out may seem easy, or obvious, it is often very difficult to define. Many parents say, “if he’s disrespectful, he gets a time out” or, “if she doesn’t listen, she gets a time-out.” While these appear to be simple enough guidelines, they turn out to be quite complex.

Consider: Being disrespectful.

  • Do you and your partner always agree on what constitutes disrespectful behaviors?”
  • If a child whines, is that disrespectful?
  • If he calls his mom stupid, most people would agree this is disrespectful and should get a time-out. Will he get the same consequence for calling someone at school stupid?
  • What if your daughter is looking at her phone will you are speaking to her. That is certainly disrespectful, but will it result in a time-out?
  • Screaming at a parent is disrespectful, but what if the parent is also screaming at the child?

Likewise, what about “not listening?”

  • If you ask your daughter to take out the trash…
    • If she hasn’t taken it out 10 minutes later, is she not listening? What if she planned to take it out 30 minutes later?
    • What if she didn’t hear you? Does she get a time-out?
    • What if she did hear you and clearly “listened” but didn’t do what you asked?
  • If you tell your son he can’t go to a party, and he asks you to go again in an hour, is he not listening? Does that get a time out?
  • If you are telling him something about your day, and a few moments later it is obvious he wasn’t listening, does he get a time-out?

As you can see, it’s hard to define behaviors. Fortunately, it gets easier with practice and some examples will help you get started. Instead of “be respectful” parents can define this behaviorally. For instance,

  • If you call someone else any of the following words, then you will have a time-out: stupid, moron, etc…”
  • If you tell an adult to “shut up” then you will have a time-out
  • If you spit on another person, then you will have a time-out

Of course, the list could go on endlessly, but it rarely needs to. Most children are engaging in a few problematic behaviors, such as hitting or swearing, that can be specifically targeted with time-outs.

If failure to follow through on parental requests is the problem, then you’ll need to slightly modify how you make requests in order to use time-outs. Most notably, requests need to be specific and timely.

  • “You have 60 seconds to take out the trash” “Take out the trash”
  • “You have 30 minutes to clean your room. When it’s done, I expect the clothing to be put in the dresser, the trash to be taken outside, and the plates to be returned to the kitchen” “Clean your room.”
  • “You have 15 seconds to turn off the TV and be sitting at the dinner table” “It’s dinner time.”

At this point, you may be thinking, “Why bother to go through all this trouble?

Defining expectations behaviorally can be a lot of work. What we know is that when people put in the work up front, they save themselves lots and lots of time and frustration later.

Additionally there are two very important benefits that many people aren’t immediately aware of:

  1. Decreasing parental conflict. Having a child with behavioral problems is very stressful on a relationship. When I sit down with parents for the first time, there is almost always a partner identified as “the enforcer” and another as “the push-over.” Neither one of these labels accurately captures either parent, but partners see the other in this way because they feel unsupported by one another. This is typically one of the biggest conflicts between partners. By clearly defining behaviors and consequences together, you can stop arguing over what should and shouldn’t result in a time-out. You can get back on the same team which will help your relationship and benefits your child who lives in a home with less conflict.
  2. Increasing your child’s sense of autonomy. While many people see consequences as a way to take away control from your child; they do just the opposite when they are utilized in a clear and consistent manner. Clearly defined consequences provide your child with a choice: “you can do A and B will happen, or you can do C and D will happen.” Instead of yelling or pressuring them to behave in one way or another, they learn that they can control their outcomes based on their own behavior. When behaviors aren’t clearly defined they learn just the opposite: “I have no control over what happens. Sometimes when I cry I get a time-out, other times I get a hug.”

“What if something comes up that I didn’t define beforehand?

Fortunately, consequences can be defined “on the fly” as well. You just have to give a warning first. So if you defined “stupid” and “moron” as unacceptable names, but your child calls someone “an idiot.” You can tell them “idiot is not an okay word to use. If you use it again, you will have a time out.” Then later it’s best to check with your partner if this could be added to the list of words that result in a time-out. This is a good strategy to use for unforeseen circumstances, but it’s not very good to constantly be deciding these issues on the fly. Consistent use of improvised rules results in the same problems described above (parental conflict, disagreement about defined problem behaviors, confusion on the part of the child).

So I encourage you to sit down with your partner and consider what 1-2 behaviors your child is engaging in that you would like to decrease or eliminate.

Figure out how to define them in behavioral terms. If a third party was observing your child, how would they know that the child did or did not do the behavior in question? Once you think you’ve got a good definition, try showing it to another parent to see what they think. If several adults agree that there is a clear definition, then you are probably off to a good start. Now you can write it down, discuss it with your child and tell them how long a time-out will be.

We will discuss time out in far greater detail in the coming months. For now, use the basic guidelines described above to start targeting one or two problem behaviors.

Here are a few extra rules of thumb to help you get started:

  • To start with, time-outs should be 1 minute per year of age (5 year old, 5 minute time out). However, if a child leaves the time out space, then the timer starts over again. If the child does not respond to the time-outs of this length after 2 weeks, consider lengthening them by 20% at a time.
  • Time-outs involve disengaging from the child. Meaning, you can’t argue with the child during a time out and you should avoid responding to them in any way unless they are a physical danger to themselves or someone else. Your task (not an easy one), is to ignore them.
  • When a time-out is over, remind the child what it was for. You might say, “you called your brother a ___________, that’s why you had a time out.”
  • The time-out is the consequence. Don’t yell at the child when implementing a time-out and don’t punish them with coldness once the time out is over. Welcome them back and attempt to begin anew.
  • Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, time-outs must always be implemented if the behavior occurs. In many situations, flexibility is a very good quality, but within the context of time-outs they are highly problematic. For instance, “he hit his brother, but I knew he had a bad week at school so I didn’t give him a time-out” is very flexible and problematic. Although this kind of thinking comes from a caring place, it undermines the child’s sense of control as they now become confused about how their behavior impacts their outcomes. It teaches the child that, “hitting is okay” in some circumstances. Finally, the hitting behavior will be unlikely to stop occurring if it is sometimes punished and other times not.
Coyne, L.W., Murrell, A.R. (2009). The Joy of Parenting: An Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Guide to Effective Parenting in the Early Years. New Harbinger Publications. Oakland, CA.
Harvey, P., Penzo, J.A. (2009). Parenting a Child who has Intense Emotions: Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Help your Child Regulate Emotional Outbursts & Aggressive Behaviors. New Harbinger Publications. Oakland, CA.


 Are you ready to do what you deeply care about and

- Ditch other people’s definition of success to pursue your own?

- Bring all your expertise to what you do without dealing with negative costs to your wellbeing?

- Develop a new mindset to do what you deeply care about without negatively affecting other areas of your life in the long run?


I hope you enjoy!