Being a toddler is an overwhelming experience. As they become more autonomous, almost every action they do becomes a lesson in what is (and, more often, isn’t) appropriate. Playing hide-and-seek with their cousins at the family picnic? Good. Asking for more watermelon? Good. Screaming because they want another cupcake? Not so great.
So, when you’ve got a tantrum-prone two-year-old, the question becomes: to time-out, or not to time-out? This nonviolent discipline strategy is a favorite among parents, used by 70 percent of families, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics.
When done correctly, a time-out can be an effective way to remove your kid from an emotional situation and allow them to learn to self-calm. It can teach them that certain behaviors are unacceptable and will not give them the attention they seek—if done correctly, that is.
“What I tell my parents is not to overuse it,” says Preeti Parikh, MD, pediatrician at The Mount Sinai Hospital and chief medical editor at HealthiNation. “It really does not become effective if it’s overused.”
The Right Time to Use a Time-Out
As your toddler learns new behaviors, she’s bound to do some “annoying” things like pick her nose (yuck) or refuse to eat her oatmeal. These do not warrant a time-out. (Psst …. here are tips to deal with picky eating in toddlers.)
Save your time-outs for major offenders, “like if they’re hitting, biting, [or doing] things that you’ve told them before not to do,” says Dr. Parikh.
Even better, give your toddler a chance to correct the behavior first. Remember that they’re still figuring out the world and may not initially realize what they are doing is inappropriate. “If they punch you, take their hand and say, ‘That hurt. Ouch. Gentle,’” says Dr. Parikh. “If they continue to do it, you can put them into time-out.”
Your tone is key: The time-out is punishment enough, so there’s no need to waste your energy yelling, scolding, or lecturing. You might have better luck with a calm and simple, “No hitting. That hurts. Go to time-out.”
The Right Place to Give a Time-Out
When most people think of time-outs, they might have recollections of their own parents ordering them to “go to their room.”
“I usually don’t recommend using a crib as a time-out location because you want that to be their safe, happy place, not [their] time-out punishment place,” says Dyan Hes, MD, a pediatrician who is double board-certified in pediatrics and obesity medicine. If your tot begins to associate their crib with time-out, it might cause anxiety and affect their sleep quality. (Here are more reasons your toddler isn’t sleeping well.)
Consider other safe locations that would remove them from the activity, such as a chair or a playard, suggests Dr. Hes. Look for “boring” and quiet spots away from TVs or toys, but are also still within your sight.
The Right Duration for a Time-Out
You might need 20 minutes to calm down after catching your toddler biting their sibling for the third time in a day, but your toddler doesn’t. In fact, keeping your child in time-out for too long can have an opposite effect. He may forget why he’s even sitting there, or even become resentful or angry. Remember: the goal of time-out is for them to calm down, reflect, and refocus.
A good rule of thumb for an effective time-out is one minute per age, according to Dr. Parikh. That means two minutes for a two-year-old, three minutes for a three-year-old, and so on.
When the time-out duration is over, allow your toddler to rejoin the activity. If her behavior has improved, there’s no need to remain angry or be aggressive. She’s had their time-out, and now she gets a chance to try again.
Need more tips for dealing with your toddler’s so-called terrible twos? Here’s how to handle a temper tantrum.
Knight RM, Albright J, Deling L, Dore-Stites D, Drayton AK. Longitudinal Relationship Between Time-Out and Child Emotional and Behavioral Functioning. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2020 Jan;41(1):31-37.
Regalado M, Sareen H, Inkelas M, Wissow LS, Halfon N. Parents’ discipline of young children: results from the National Survey of Early Childhood Health. Pediatrics. 2004 Jun;113(s5).
Time-outs 101. Itasca, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics, 2018. (Accessed on February 27, 2022 at https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/Pages/Time-Outs-101.aspx.)