Using Positive Time-Out

My last post introduced positive time-out. Positive time-outs are intended to interrupt problem behaviors and to help children calm down and gain self-control. When children are young the time-out both teaches them how to do this and gives them an opportunity to exercise those new skills. As the child gets older, time-out is both a reminder to the child to regain control over himself and a push to do so.

Here are some tips for using positive time-outs with the different age groups of childhood.


Infants and Toddlers

  • Infants and toddlers are too young for time-outs. They are not developmentally ready to be in charge of self-soothing. Nor can they understand the connections between their behaviors and the time-out, so the lessons of time-out are lost on them.
  • Instead of calling for a time-out, remove the child from the scene or from whatever is upsetting or frustrating her.
  • Stay with her to comfort her and help her learn to soothe herself. The focus is on helping her develop her self-calming and self-control skills, not on punishing her for the lack or failure of those skills.
  • Redirect her to a more acceptable activity or behavior.


  • Time-outs can begin with preschoolers, but the parent will stay with the child. Laps and snuggling are great time-out places. Taking a nap can be a time-out option.
  • Have a “cozy corner” or other safe, comforting place where the child can retreat for comfort and renewal. He should be encouraged to use it under his own initiative as well as at the parent’s direction. In it there should be comforting objects, such as stuffed animals, soft blankets, books to read or quiet activities.
  • As the child becomes more adept at being comforted and self-comforting, the cozy corner becomes more of a concept than a particular place.
  • When you call for a time-out, begin by describing the problematic behavior. “I see that you are throwing blocks at your brother.” Or “When you run around in the store screaming like this, it tells me that you are having trouble with self-control.”
  • Then offer the choice to stop the behavior immediately or to take a time-out. “Would you like to go to the cozy corner with me to calm down or do you think you can stay here and not throw/scream/run off?”
  • It is an acceptable choice when he chooses to stop the behavior and remain playing. He has managed to exercise self-control and a time-out is not needed.
  • If the child does not stop the behavior immediately, take it that they need and have elected a time-out. Regardless of what he says, you can say, “I see that you have chosen to go to the cozy corner with me.” And then you respectfully take him there.
  • The time-out ends when he is sufficiently calmed down, not when a specified number of minutes have passed. The measure is not a Zen-like calm, but rather the ability to exercise self-control and function in the situation. If he is unable to calm himself you are there to help him.
  • Another way to help him take charge of his self-soothing is to give him the choice of being alone or having you with him. Once he gets the idea of what is involved in a positive time-out you can ask him, “Would you rather go alone or would you like mommy (or daddy) to come with you?”
  • Phasing the parent out of time-out is a process. How fast that happens depends on the child himself. Again, the goal is to help him learn to calm himself, using available resources, including you. Just as he will at some point give up naps, pacifiers, and thumb sucking, so too will he give up your lap as part of his time-out. But if he is worrying about being abandoned by you, he will not be focusing on learning to calm himself. It is pretty common for parents to be part of time-out for the preschool years, although some children prefer to be alone from the start.
  • If at all possible, the time-out should just be one-on-one time, without siblings and others.

School-Age Children

  • Cozy corners for school age children can still have the preschool comforters. Children may also want to have writing or drawing supplies. Drawing pictures of how hurt or angry she feels can be a great way of releasing those negative feelings. Listening to or making quiet music; practicing calming techniques such as slow breathing or yoga; or journal writing are other possibilities. Think of what your child enjoys or of what helps you.
  • The child is in charge of the length of the time-out. The goal is for her to take ownership of calming herself down. If she is focused on the clock ticking away the length of her servitude, she is not paying attention to her internal state and her external behaviors; to learning when she is calm and what helps her calm down. 
  • Offer the child the choice of calming herself in the moment or going off to take some time to calm down. “I see that you are upset/your behavior is out of control. Would you like to take some quiet time to calm yourself down or do you think are able to stay here and behave properly?” Always conclude with, “As soon as you feel better, and you get to decide when it is, you can rejoin us.”
  • If she says she wants to stay or just stays without saying anything, expect that she will now behave appropriately. If she doesn’t, you can say, “I see you have chosen to go to the cozy corner.” Then gently and firm lead her there.
  • If she refuses to go, don’t get into a struggle with her over it. Instead, bring the cozy corner to her. Put a halt to whatever the out-of-control activity was. Use a calm and quiet tone of voice. Put your arm around her, hold her close. Offer quieting activities, such as reading or telling a story; quiet, soothing singing; coloring; petting the cat; watching the clouds go by. Repeat the reassurance that as soon as she feels better she can rejoin or resume her activities.
  • After it is all over, follow-up with problem-solving. Talk together about what went wrong. Be supportive and don’t use blaming or shaming. Together describe what happened. Look for the triggers that set things off. (Johnny took my truck.) What kinds of things aggravated the situation? (I was hungry.)  How else could the situation be handled? Be creative. Use humor. Think outside the box. Encourage the child to generate solutions and if at all possible use her solutions. Agree on something to try out the next time this happens and plan on evaluating how it went.
  • When things meltdown away from home, look for any quiet place that can be a shelter from the emotional storm. Perhaps you might withdraw together to the car, or go out to sit under a tree, or simply create some privacy by using your body as a shield from the other people and their activity. Be respectful of the child. She probably has already drawn attention to herself; you don’t need to add to that.


  • Time-outs for adolescents are similar to the ones we take as adults. We cannot send a teen to time-out, but we can make recommendations. “Would you like to take some time for yourself right now? Maybe go some place quiet or go for a walk.”
  • You can extend an open offer to help the teen with problem-solving or to just listen. Your teen may take you up on the offer then, much later, or not at all.
  • If your teen does not specifically ask for your help at that moment, remove yourself and let your teen decide how to handle himself, his feelings and his behavior.
  • This does not mean that you have to tolerate unacceptable behaviors. You don’t. But you use other parenting tools, such as setting limits, applying natural and logical consequences, or giving responsibility.
  • Strive to always keep your communication channels open with your teenager.

If you find your child is not exercising self control nor able to calm him or herself down despite everything you do, there may be something else going on. Consider consulting with a mental health or medical professional. They can evaluate and help your child, help you parent in ways that best support the child, and if appropriate, recommend other useful resources.


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