The first step in making time-outs work is choosing a suitable area. "A good time-out spot should be reasonably convenient and in a location where you can monitor it to make sure your child isn't being hurt and that she stays," says Dean Pearson, Ph.D., author of Is Anybody in Charge? A Guide for Managing Children and Teaching Them Self-Control. You can use a chair or stool, a floor mat, a bottom step, or any seat that works. If you prefer, designate a name for the time-out chair or space, such as the "thinking chair" or the "quiet zone." Just make sure the area is boring and away from the distractions of other siblings, the television, toys, or objects she could use to irritate you, says Dr. Pearson.
Once you've chosen the spot, decide how much time your child will spend there. A good rule of thumb is one minute per year of your child's age. So, a 2-year-old would get two minutes of time-out while a 4-year-old would get four minutes. If you find that the shorter time-outs aren't having the desired effect, increase the length by half the time (so your 4-year-old would get an extra two minutes, for a total of six minutes), Dr. Pearson says. Keep track of time with a kitchen timer or an alarm on your smartphone. When you begin using time-outs, your child will probably have to visit the area quite often. There isn't a limit to the number of time-outs you can use, but be sensible. Once your child realizes you will be firm with consequences, the need for repeated time-outs will probably diminish, Dr. Pearson says.
Don't spring time-out on your child. When you're both in a good mood, show him the spot and explain what it is: a quiet place where he will go if he doesn't behave and obey certain rules or if he needs to calm down. Choose three to five misbehaviors (like hitting, biting, angry yelling, throwing a tantrum), and be specific about which broken rules will lead to a time-out. Let him know how long he will have to sit during time-out, and explain that when time-out is over -- which is when the timer or alarm rings -- he can get up.
If your child earns time in the "naughty chair," take her there immediately. Don't wait until you finish a task -- such as watching a TV show or washing the dishes. Time-outs are most effective when you give them while the misbehavior is occurring or immediately afterward, says Erik A. Fisher, Ph.D., coauthor of The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With. Young kids have short memories, so if the consequence isn't immediate, they are apt forget the misbehavior and be confused when they are punished later. Even if you're away from home, you can devise time-out options, says Dr. Fisher. Suitable spots to give your child a break right away include a corner at the mall, an empty aisle at the grocery store, a bench at the park, or a place outside the car.
Time-outs are a way to give your misbehaving child a break to regain self-control, but you also need to make sure you're keeping your own emotions in check. When you give your kid a time-out, avoid yelling, spanking, criticizing, or getting into long-winded versions of "I told you so." Simply state the inappropriate behavior in a firm and calm tone of voice, and don't give too much of an explanation when sending her to the time-out location. All you need to say is, "No hitting, Lisa: Go to time-out."
Once you've explained that a specific behavior will lead to time-out, follow through with it every time and don't waver. If you don't, your child won't take time-outs seriously. He'll think you're full of false threats or that he can cry, plead, or charm his way out of time-out. Consistency is a must, especially during time-outs. Getting a toddler or a preschooler to stay in time-out can be difficult. Some kids will keep getting up off the chair or scoot their way out of the designated area. Others will try to position themselves to see (or try to participate in) ongoing activities. Your kid might move the chair so he can get a peek at the TV, or he might splay his body across the time-out area in hopes of grabbing an item that's just out of his reach. If your child refuses to stay put, hold him firmly in place for the duration of the time-out, or take him back to the time-out spot every time he leaves and restart the timer when he remains in the spot, says Dr. Pearson. Your child will learn quickly that it's easier to sit and finish his time-out immediately so he can soon rejoin the fun with everyone else.
Once the timer or alarm rings to indicate that time-out is over, have a quick chat with your child. Ask if she understands why you gave her a time-out. Allow her to express her feelings, and then, very briefly, remind her that time-outs occur only when she breaks a rule or needs help to tone things down. Praise her for completing the time-out, and then go on with life. Your child now has a clean slate on which to show off her newly improved behavior!
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