The Quick Guide to Toddler Time Out

July 22, 2016 |  by  |  2 YO, 3 YO, featured, guest author, parenting
how to do toddler time out

Parenting a toddler can make you yearn for the glorious newborn days where you could just carry your compliant child around with you like an adorable loaf of bread. So it’s no surprise that parents find themselves looking for techniques to help manage their toddler’s behavior because toddlers, by their very nature, are often unmanageable. One popular approach is toddler time out: putting your toddler in a chair or some other safe comfortable space for 1-2 minutes. During the toddler time out, your toddler will calm down and quietly reflect on their behavior, identifying their contribution to the current situation and changes they can affect to do better in the future.


I think parents of toddlers gravitate towards the idea of time outs because:

  • You can’t reason with a toddler. “If you play in the snow with bare feet they’ll freeze off and you can’t play with your friends with leg stumps!”
  • Challenging behavior can feel relentless. “Stop hitting your brother so we can have snack! Why did you stuff your socks in your sippy cup?”
  • We worry that we’re losing control. “Yes she’s still naked. I tried to put pants on her for 3 hours and gave up. Shut up and stop judging me!”
  • There are clear rules. “Sit in the chair for 3 minutes or Mommy will cry. You don’t want Mommy to cry do you?!!?”

I don’t remember where I first came across the idea of time outs but I believe it was on Super Nanny.

I would watch the videos of parents wrestling their kid into the naughty chair for what appears to be 27 hours while the Benny Hill theme song plays in the background. It’s hard to watch this and feel like it’s a winning strategy. My own attempts played out in much the same way leaving me feel resentful and defeated.

So I asked two child psychologists about it.

Drs. Kate Viezel and Jamie Zibulsky see patients at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Center for Psychological Services and are trained in Alan Kazdin’s Parent Management Technique (PMT). They also run a year-long PMT externship for psychology students. And they are both parents of young children so they totally “get it.” And this is what they have to say about it

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

The best way to change behavior isn’t discipline.

Say what now? How do I get my child to stop being a small dictator if I don’t punish her? Well, as psychologists have known since teaching rats how to run through mazes, the best way to change behavior is through positive reinforcement. Rats won’t do much if you shock them when they make a wrong turn, but if you put a piece of cheese at the end of the maze, suddenly you have a little furry Einstein. If you’re offended that we are comparing your child to a rat, clearly you haven’t been subjected to the tiny claws of a tantruming toddler.

What does “positive reinforcement” mean in real life? You need to figure out what you want your child TO do, instead of what NOT TO DO (more on this later). And you need to regularly acknowledge when they do something right. Here are some examples of how to positively reinforce your child:

  • Specific verbal acknowledgement, like saying “Great job putting your socks in the drawer!” (which is a more effective way to praise than saying something global like “Good boy!”)
  • Positive Attention, such as looking at them and smiling, or playing yet another round of Candy Land
  • Touches like hugs or high fives
  • Tangible rewards like stickers or treats

Most of us pay way more attention to our children when they do something wrong than when they do something right. Or we may praise exceptional accomplishment while breezing by the run-of-the-mill appropriate things they do every day. But research and experience show that kids behave better when people focus on the things they are doing right, even when those things are as simple as sitting down at the table to eat breakfast.

Tactics for Stubbornness vs. Aggression

Now that you have some strategies you can use when your kiddo is acting the way you want them to, let’s get to the issue you really want to address – what to do when your child is being stubborn or aggressive. By being stubborn (or, more charitably, “developing a sense of autonomy”) we mean those times when your peanut says, “no I won’t wear mittens, no you can’t change my diaper, no I’m not getting in that car seat, no I won’t stop throwing toys down the stairs.” And aggression is anything that hurts bodies or feelings, like hitting, kicking, screaming “I hate you!”, etc.

how toddlers make decisions

{H/T Honest Toddler}

If you’re having a hard time getting your kid to follow instructions, first remember the power of positive reinforcement. That means you’ll need to be on the lookout for times when your child DOES put on their shoes the first time you ask. Simply saying “Great job getting in the bath the first time I asked!” (or doing a little happy dance) can work wonders.

Natural Consequences

Assuming you are praising, hugging, high-fiving, and Candy-Landing your kid a ton, another great response to noncompliance is to allow the natural consequence to play out. A natural consequence is anything (positive or negative) that flows organically from the child’s choice.

As an example, if your toddler breaks all their crayons into tiny bits of wax confetti, the natural consequence is that they’ve rendered their crayons unusable for drawing. The next time they want to draw they’ll be disappointed to find their crayons are no longer usable. You don’t lecture or use this moment to toss out a well-deserved “I told you so!” but trust your child to come to their own conclusions and let that inform future decisions. Natural consequences can be challenging for parents because we’ve been conditioned to believe that parenting means actively doing something and it can be hard to just sit back and let life happen without our involvement. It’s hard to get out of the way and trust your child to figure things out. But allowing natural consequences to happen is an enormously powerful and effective parenting strategy.

But what about aggression? Aggression isn’t something you can ignore, and timeout can be an effective strategy to use when bodies or feelings are getting hurt.

If done correctly.

How To Use Toddler Time Out

The time-out is a mild punishment technique that is usually an improvement over what many parents wind up doing when their kids are aggressive (arguing, harsh punishment, yelling, etc).

Time out can be effective, but you should do it consistently and rarely. And you must be regularly using positive reinforcement strategies in order for time out to work.

positive reinforcement

It is also important to remember that time out only works if you are removing a child from a highly reinforcing environment. Pick a place in your house where your child can sit in time out without any reinforcement or stimulation.

Keep it short.

It should be brief; anything longer than 5-8 minutes isn’t any more effective than a shorter time-out, and can lead to additional problems. The minute-per-age rule (three minutes for a three year old) is pretty good, but we would recommend that you max out at about five minutes, regardless of the age of the child. Also, some kids might not be able to do three minutes; in this case, even one minute (or less) is sufficient.


Minimize attention.

Time outs should not involve any attention given to the child because any attention can reinforce negative behaviors. Time out should definitely not involve a power struggle. Any attention (even “negative”) defeats the purpose of time out. (Walking the child back to the time out spot a billion times is absolutely a power struggle and nobody wins a power struggle). Physically holding a child in time-out is giving them ALL THE ATTENTION, and carries the risk of accidental injury. If the child refuses to do time out, offer a choice of time-out or a privilege loss. If the child refuses the time out, they lose the privilege. Once the child either does time-out or loses the privilege, let the whole thing go. No one likes a lecture so save the moral discussion for a time when everyone is calm. Take a deep breath, grab the play-dough, and head outside for some fun.


The right age.

Keep in the mind that, for all of the reasons above, it may be very tricky (and counterproductive) to give a time out to a child younger than the age of two or three. If you don’t think your child will be able to sit still for a brief time out or understand the concept of privilege loss, then they’re too young. You can still remove your child from the environment that is triggering the aggressive behavior, and pay lots of attention to appropriate behaviors.


Positive reinforcement is key.

The most important point is that time outs alone will not lead to behavior change. Reinforcement of good behavior will. If the child is not receiving praise, attention, and rewards for good behavior, all the time outs in the world won’t do a thing. You need to regularly acknowledge when our toddler uses gentle hands with the dog, plays nicely with their brother, and sits still for a diaper change.

positive reinforcement

Thank you Kate and Jamie for taking the time to share these insights with the crew here! The key takeaway for me is that regardless of how old/young your kids are, or if you do/don’t want to use time out as a strategy, working towards a mindset that is routinely acknowledging the positive in our children is essential. Whether it’s with our words, a smile, a quick hug, or simply spending some time sharing an activity they enjoy, everything begins not so much with changing their behavior, but changing our own. So thank you for the reminder and personally, I’m going to make a huge effort to put your advice to good use.

Got any time out stories or questions you care to share? Fire away with comments below!


  1. Thank you for this Alexis! I’ve been struggling with discipline strategies (aka I have none). I try to be consistent and calm and explain why we can’t do/have to do x but I think I do need to do a better job of recognizing when my son does the things he’s supposed to the very first time. I say thank you for a lot, but he would love a happy dance ;).

    • I default to talking too – WHY CAN WE NOT DISCUSS THIS?!?!

      This was a big wakeup call to me too. I don’t acknowledge nearly enough of the awesomeness that happens all the time.

  2. Thank you for this!! I babysit a very smart, very strong-willed two and a half year old. I also have her 4 month old brother and my 8 month old daughter. It’s so hard! She acts out because the babies needs come before her. This gives me some good tools to hopefully help her to behave better. She frequently acts and and timeouts haven’t been effective (obviously…). Thanks for writing this Alexis!

    • Good luck! Ugh – three kids under 2.5 would give me stress hives.

      Carving out time to focus on a toddler and “fill her tank” so to speak must be UBER hard with 2 babies to deal with. Good luck!

  3. ahhh the things I have to look forward to!

    • Honestly I adore little kids! Babies are great but they aren’t my bag generally. Toddlers and preschoolers can be challenging (my oldest threw tantrums ALL THE TIME) but they’re also a ball of laughs. Mostly anyway 😉

      • I have to agree, my two and half year old son is really way more fun now. Especially as he’s like me – we think outside our heads – so his constant narrative of the world around him is often funny and unexpectedly insightful l!

        I’m really glad you arranged this post just because it looks like we’re at least doing the positive reinforcement bit right. We’ve tried time out once and it was just terrible. I can totally see what we did wrong now.

        Another thing I try to do is sticking to pointing out that it’s the behaviour that’s undesirable rather than him. So the whole that was a naughty thing to do rather than you’re a naughty boy.

  4. Any recommended readings on this concept? I have a one-year-old so I have some time to think and research about how we want to approach discipline with our toddler. Thanks!

    • Check out the book “Positive Discipline.” You can find it at libraries, online, or used book stores. It goes along with these recommendations. We follow it, and frequently use the natural consequences concept with our over the top stubborn rascal. Best wishes!

    • I love Duct Tape Parenting (truthfully took parenting classes with the author and the classes are way more fun) and How to Talk so Kids will Listen (it’s a classic). The book on positive reinforcement is The Kazdin Method: Parenting the Defiant Child.

  5. My son is 23 months any form of discipline has become a power struggle. We try time out but pretty much if you ask him to do something (including sitting in timeout) he laughs hysterically does the opposite and thinks it is a super funny game. I am losing my mind! We have a new almost 1 month old and he steals her blankets and binkies with the same laughter when we ask that he leave them alone or give them back! Bah!!! 2 year olds!!

    • Oh my gosh yes that age is hard to enforce limits! We gave up on timeouts until closer to 2.5. At that age, I just kept my son from doing whatever it was and told him I wouldn’t let him, but I can’t imagine how hard it would be to constantly have to do that while taking care of a new baby! It will get better!

    • You will lose any power struggle. There is no winning. For starters as mentioned above he may be too young. Time out and consequences are for older kids and at almost 2 he may be too young.

      That doesn’t mean he’s too young for any sort of boundaries. If he steals from the baby I would restate the rule, “Those are baby’s blankets, not for you. You have your own blanket. No taking, not OK.” Then I would pick up the baby and walk away – NO ATTENTION. Thus the consequence to his “game” is he gets ignored. If you are 100% consistent I guarantee you he won’t continue thinking this is a super funny game.

  6. Thank you for this! I have been pulling my hair out lately and at the end of my rope with my 3.5 year old. This gives me some hope again!

    • I can’t take the credit but what I’ve learned with my own hair-pulling with kids is if I’m hitting THE WALL I need to change what I’m doing. Like it’s on ME to do something different because whatever I AM doing isn’t getting me anywhere. This can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow, but there it is 😛

  7. Any tips for the 2 1/2 yr old boy that asks for timeouts or behavior-relevant privilege loss so he can continue the behavior with a different toy? Change of scenery my other option? Usually those tactics work, or Mom takes a needed timeout-which is really distressing for him. (We actually rarely do timeout because he begs for them.) Thanks for posting – I always need the reminder to praise!!

    • Not sure I understand. If he throws toys for example and gets a time out which he happily does because then he can go throw a DIFFERENT toy, I would say that all toys are off limits until he can show you no throwing. So something like “We don’t throw toys. If you throw toys we’ll have to (close the playroom, put toys in the closet) until you can remember to stop throwing.” Then give options: do you want to go outside or read a book?

      • Thanks, we’ll keep doing that. He really lets me just put all his toys away and then he’ll bang on a window or something. Not very often, but boy…Thanks for the new post!

  8. I find my 3 yr old will have tantrums if he is tired, hungry or eaten crappy food. The amount if bribing required to get into the bath at night is crazy and then just getting pj’s on is pure torture! Tonight I will give alot more positive reinforcement and see how we go!! Thanks for this post.

  9. Love the positive discipline concept. I am still reading and working on it so it doesn’t always work smoothly (nor will it ever) but I use the different tools as a guide every day…I have a lot of work to do. I hope to implore the “quiet space” for both mommy and child sometime soon. It is a space you designate to allow yourself some quiet time, somewhere besides the toilet! In the book, they use the example of a teacher who pulls out a blow up palm tree and sets it on her desk, symbolizing that the teacher has “gone to Hawaii” and is not to be disturbed. The children have their own corner with pictures of Hawaii where they can go as well. I am hoping to create something in our home that is similar. Perhaps the idea will help some of you!

  10. Thank you for this! My most-used coping strategy when my toddler is being especially…two…is to try and seek out the positive. Anything positive. It really helps me get less frustrated and keeps me from falling into the “I’m raising a little sociopath who somehow takes pleasure out of destroying my sanity and possessions,” spiral and if I keep reminding both of us of all the good things she does.

    I was worried, though, that it was making me a less effective disciplinarian when, after she’d refused her dinner or threw a fit about me taking her shoes off in the wrong order, I was praising her for the littlest, dumbest things that she’d been doing since she could walk – like correctly using her spoon or remembering to take off her shoes when we got in the house. I’m so relieved that not only am I probably not undermining myself, I actually might have stumbled ass-backwards into doing the right thing!

  11. Hi Alex,
    Such a hard issue! I swear by Daniel Siegel’s time-ins from No Drama Discipline…he does great brain research and talks also about how tricky time-outs are. They work great with my 3 year old! Thanks!

  12. I am also a big fan of the positive reinforcement idea, although in practice it’s definitely one of the hardest things to do on a day to day basis. My first child was 21 months old when we brought home a new baby. This was about the time that aggressive and destructive behavior started happening. Trying to throw the TV off of the TV stand and stealing his sister’s blankets and throwing them on the floor became new favorite games. Based on our child’s personality and a LOT of parenting trial and error we determined it was all attention seeking behavior. By reinforcing 2 ideas: 1. hey, kid, mom still loves you and 2. your new sister is not here to replace you and can actually be your friend, we were able to eliminate most of this aggressive behavior(he IS still a toddler after all!). Getting toddler and mom 1-on-1 time in the morning, even just 10 minutes(i know even this can be hard!), helped with the temper tantrums in the afternoon and overall improved his mood. While breastfeeding the newborn(which usually resulted in my toddler screaming in defiance), i have him bring over a book and ill read to him while the baby is eating. I also try to involve my toddler positively with the newborn, like bringing the newborn “over to play” too, or asking my toddler to “help” change her diaper(by getting mom a wipe or a clean diaper). These little things were able to help my family a lot and I hope passing it along will be able to help someone else. Good luck!

  13. Good article. Any advice on what to do for my 16 month old who is very aggressive? He loves to hit and pull hair. He hits me, hits his father, hits his sister, hits our cats, throws things at us. He can be sweet, and gentle and we definitely use positive reinforcement for those times but I don’t know what to do when he is aggressive. I can’t find anything causing this behavior uniformly although I know he does hit when he is frustrated with a situation (when I am cooking and can’t pick him up, when anyone gets near me as he is really jealous, he hits them…but sometimes he just does it in the middle of play).

    Usually we try to (calmly) say “no, we don’t hit” and attend to the hurt person, to show empathy. Or put him down on the ground if he hits us while we are holding him. He usually screams his head off when we do that. He knows he has done something “wrong” or that we are upset with him and wants us to hug him. We try to resist that by saying , “its ok, you are upset but you cannot hit, it hurts.” He is too young for a timeout or anything but I can’t ignore the aggressiveness. help!

  14. This is great information! I can’t believe I’m just now finding your site. I will be recommending you to my pediatric patient’s families. And of course using the advice myself 😉 Thanks for what you do.

  15. Rather than rely on the kid to voluntarily stay in time-out, I strap him in. Time out is being buckled into the booster seat in his room with the door shut. Is there a problem with strapping kids in? This assumes that time-out is very short.

    • It wouldn’t be my first choice. For starters, there is the whole fight to get him strapped in (I’m assuming he’s not going to willingly sit there while you strap him in). And I’m not sure that it’s necessary for him to be strapped into a chair. That feels like punishment as now he’s a bit humiliated and bored (there’s nothing fun to do in the chair). The goal is really to separate your child from whatever he was doing (hitting, throwing) and to NOT reinforce the behavior by giving loads of attention to it. Being in his own room or simply removed from wherever the issue occurred seems sufficient for this, no?

  16. Hi Alexis,
    I have been reading PLS and using your magical (and entertaingly written) teachings for around 13 months. I also love the podcast and the Facebook group so much. If it isn’t too personal, would you ever share more about your parenting beliefs and if you follow any specific parts of established parenting styles? I liked your article on toddler time-out and totally agree with it. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with the world in such a non-boring and honest way.

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