How to Determine The Length of a Time-Out

February 2, 2017

We’re all familiar with the time-out, right? Time-outs are given to children when they misbehave or do something they know is wrong. They usually involve sitting in a quiet space such like a corner or a bedroom for a specific amount of time. But how long should time-outs be? Should it depend on the age of the child, or the behavior that landed them the time-out, or both? Should time-outs even be timed at all? It can be a tricky thing to figure out. Here’s some advice…

Age Makes a Difference

The time-out is meant to give children a chance to calm down. Some children will need more time than others; therefore, many experts are now saying that the time-out does not have to be a specific amount of time. However, the age of your child can be used to determine the maximum amount of time of the time-out. While an older child may understand discipline, a younger one may not. A good rule of thumb to start with is one minute for every year the child is, i.e. a six-year old’s time out would be six minutes, a seven-year old’s seven minutes and so on.

Some experts believe that after the age of two, a child can begin to comprehend the meaning of time-out and that longer times can be effective. However, it’s important to remember that a time-out that’s “too long” still exists.

Severity of Misbehaviour

The act of misbehavior from the child also plays into effect. More severe actions may call for longer time-outs. An example could be violence vs. not listening – violent acts are far more severe than not listening, therefore the punishment should be greater.

Make Sure There’s Meaning

Simply putting your child on a time-out without explanation isn’t helping them – or you for that matter. No matter the length of the time-out, be sure your child understands why they’re there. Be very clear with them why you’re giving them a time-out. For example, instead of “Johnny, that’s bad, you’re on time-out for 10 minutes,” try something like “Johnny, you know it’s wrong to hit, someone could get very hurt. You’re on time-out until you’re to apologize for what you did.” This way, your child knows the behaviors that caused them to be given a time-out; therefore, helping them avoid them in the future.

Be Consistent

If you decide that a certain behavior warrants a time-out, it’s important that this applies every time your child does it. This is because your child will become confused. If they receive a time-out for throwing a tantrum one day and don’t receive one the next time they throw a tantrum, they may attribute the time-out to a different behavior altogether.

Another reason to show consistency is so that your child does not take advantage of you. If you threaten a time-out but don’t follow through, your child will see empty threats and walk all over you.

Time Free Time-outs

You could also take a different approach and move away from the typical “timed” time-out altogether. Because time-outs can occur for many reasons, it only makes sense to have different time-outs to reflect different actions.

For example, if your child is on a time-out to cool down after getting heated or violent, have them write a letter expressing their feelings, or shake a snow globe and have them sit until the glitter is set. This type of time-out gives them an opportunity to reflect on their actions. If you gave your child a time-out for not sharing their toys, try having them give up their toys for a few hours and do something else, instead.

Gauge Your Child’s Reaction

The way your child reacts to time-outs can also play a factor in determining how long a time-out should be. If your child is younger (i.e. a toddler), they may get extremely upset when they are put on a time-out. Three or four minutes may not be necessary. You may only need one or two minutes coupled with an explanation of why the child was placed on time-out.

On the flip side, your child may not truly feel like time-outs are a punishment, in which case they won’t be effective. It’s important to notice this as well. This may mean a longer time-out is needed, or it may mean a different form of punishment would be more suited to your child; perhaps the removal of a privilege or favorite toy for a set period of time.

Involve Your Child in Decision-making

As your child gets older, you may be able to involve him or her in the decision-making around time-outs. Talk with your child about what’s fair in terms of behaviors leading to a time-out as well as the length of the time-out. You can even involve them in making a chart or something similar, to place in the time-out area. This can serve as a device to help your child reflect on their actions.


At the end of the day, every parent is different and every child is different. What works for other children may not be effective for your child and vice-versa. It’s up to you to assign the appropriate time-out and length of time out for your child.

How do you determine how long your child’s time-out is? Share in the comments below.

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