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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Family Fundamentals: Try this alternative 'time-out' method for children (for August 2011)

August 16, 2011

I use 'time-out' to guide my daughter's behavior, but the power struggles that sometimes erupt make me wonder if it's worth it. Does time-out really work?

Time-out is a common discipline practice in many families. Normally, this is how it's supposed to work: When your daughter misbehaves, warn her that if she continues the behavior and doesn't comply with your commands, she'll be sent to time-out. If she continues to misbehave, then send her to a special spot -- separated, but a place where she can still see what she is missing. The goal is for her to be bored, not scared.

Time-out isn't long -- the appropriate time should be no longer than one minute for every year of a child's age (a two-minute time-out for a 2-year-old, for example). While your daughter is in time-out, talk with her to review why she is there, what behavior is unacceptable, and how she can better handle a similar situation in the future.

You know as well as any parent that many children can't sit still during a time-out -- they'll squirm or talk. When that happens, parents might respond by increasing the time or being harsher with the child. That's really where things go wrong.  At that point, the time-out becomes the focus -- the original misbehavior is no longer the issue. It is solely about getting the child to finish the time-out.

However, there may be a better way. Experts in early-childhood development have modified time-out so it's not only more effective but teaches children that they actually have control and a choice to do what is right.

The new time-out doesn't designate a "special place" for the child. It just separates the child from the activity that started the trouble. For example, if your daughter throws toy trucks after she has been told not to do so, then tell her it's time to do something else: read books or build with blocks, for example. But the trucks are not a choice -- until, that is, she is ready to play with them without throwing them.

At this point, your daughter has been given complete control regarding the duration of the time-out. She knows that when she is ready to play with the trucks properly, she can do so.

Now, your daughter might take the re-direction and start playing with other toys, or she may decide -- possibly in no more than a nanosecond -- that she is ready to resume playing with the trucks. When she makes that decision, that's where you step in and remind her of the limits: "I notice you are going to play with your trucks. The trucks are not for throwing. If the trucks can't stay on the floor, they will be put away until tomorrow."

This puts the decision on how to behave squarely in your daughter's lap. She knows if she throws the trucks, there will be a consequence. She is in control, not you.

This "new" time-out can help you develop your children into people who learn to make good choices. Try it, and see if it eliminates the power struggles you're currently experiencing.

Family Fundamentals is a monthly column on family issues. It is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Family Fundamentals, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1044, or

Dear Subscriber: This column was reviewed by Joseph Maiorano, family and consumer sciences educator for Ohio State University Extension. Maiorano learned of the strategy described in this column while he was a teaching assistant in Ohio State University's A. Sophie Rogers Laboratory School. He says, "It was never described as a specific strategy or even had a name associated with it, but this is how I have come to talk about it."


Martha Filipic
Joseph Maiorano