“Time Out”: Will It Traumatize My Child?


I never thought that “time-out” would be my thing until that one play date where Liam, my almost two-year-old, decided to experiment with hitting and pulling other kids’ hair. There was literally nothing I could do to stop him – he was in that kind of mood, a feisty, assertive mood I had never seen him in before that afternoon.

I assured the moms that this was certainly not the Liam I knew, but it didn’t help my embarrassment… No one wants their child to be that child. I was mortified.

After multiple “chats” in the corner of the room, I had no choice but to remove him from the situation entirely. Embarrassment aside, I had no idea what to do – how could I tackle “time-out” in a way that would teach my young child that what he did was “wrong”? Would he understand that his actions were to not be reproduced, or would he simply be traumatized by the abrupt punishment?

I took him out of the play space (luckily, it was our living room), plopped him in his crib, explained that he was in “time-out”, and closed the door. I stood outside for 30-45 seconds, then went back in and asked him if he was ready to play nice again. He nodded eagerly, so I assumed he meant yes.

I had no idea if what I was doing was okay, I just did it. I knew, in the moment, that I needed to remove him from the situation, I just didn’t know if it was the right way to do it.

That night, I did a bit of research on time-out methods and how to successfully teach a toddler that what he did was “wrong”. It is one thing to teach a four-year-old to stop doing something, but an entirely different one to explain it to a 22-month-old.

This is what I learned:

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For toddlers, you want to treat the time-out as a short break from an “overstimulating” situation. There is no need to make your child feel abandoned, so it is best to sit in a quiet room together – do your best to not talk or get visibly upset.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says it’s fine to give children as young as 1 a time-out (although 2 is more effective), but only as a last resort – don’t call time-out whenever your child does something “bad”, but rather when he does something dangerous (hit the dog, for example) or something that can lead to bad habits (like being pushy with other kids).

Don’t expect your toddler to get much out of time-out, but rather use it as “quiet time” to be able to reenter the stimulating situation with a calmer attitude. At this age, time-out should never be treated as a “punishment” – All it is is a break, an opportunity to nip the bad behavior in the bud.

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The key is to choose a time-out setting that is quiet. This can be another room or your child’s crib or pack and play. In this setting, your child should be able to regroup and calm down in about a minute (a good rule of thumb is one minute per year- but some argue that this only applies to children two and up.)

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Although your toddler may not be able to take a step back from the situation and analyze his own behavior, it is essential to explain that what he did was wrong. Make your explanation immediate, brief, and calm. Use direct eye contact and be firm. You may want to do this as a warning: “if you hit and hurt ____, we’ll take a time-out because it’s not nice to hurt other babies”. The more specific you are, the more likely your child will understand that what he did wasn’t okay. Explain why it’s time for a time-out so that, hopefully, your child thinks twice before doing said action again.

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Even if what your child did was unacceptable, do not berate him. Assume that the time-out itself is enough of a lesson. Once time-out is over, leave the bad behavior behind you and move on.

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When time-out is over, give your child a hug, a sign of affection that tells him that you still love him regardless of his bad behavior. Instead of reiterating that what he did was bad, focus on a positive. You can say something like, “okay, let’s go play with ____ again – why don’t we read a book together?” or “why don’t you show ____ how nicely you can play?” The goal is to distract your child from the upsetting situation and move on in a positive way. Assume the lesson has been learned.

Note – Until your child is able to determine what good and behaviors are (around the age of 3), limit time-outs and make sure they are only used when absolutely necessary (dangerous situations, for example). Do not abuse them. Keep in mind that toddlers are still in the “discovery” phase, and that it is our job, as parents, to teach them right from wrong. A clear, firm explanation can go a long way!

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Johanna Riehm teaches in the department of Communication and Media at Manhattanville College and in the department of English at Mercy College. She teaches courses in the history of communication, public speaking, and social media, as well as creative and technical writing workshops. Johanna’s work has been featured in Graffiti Literary Magazine, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Bangalore Review, Cactus Heart Press, and the LaMothe Review. She is working on her first longer work, a creative nonfiction novel called We Carved Our Names in Tamarind Trees.

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