What are timeouts for toddlers?
“Terrible twos.” “Threenagers.” Even the nicknames for these age groups reveal what a handful they can be. Most parents quickly notice that the toddler years are when their little ones start pushing boundaries and displaying behavior that isn’t safe or appropriate. Learn more about the tools for helping manage your toddler's behavior, and whether timeouts are a good or bad tool for toddler discipline.
Why do toddlers misbehave?
Between ages two and three, a child's understanding of the world and their place within it changes in big ways. One important change is that toddlers realize that they are their own individual, separate from their parents or caregivers. They figure out that they can communicate their own likes, dislikes, and wants to those around them.
In addition to this new sense of independence, toddlers often don't have all of the language skills they need to fully share their ideas, desires, or needs. This can lead to frustration and misbehavior.
Other factors can also contribute to your toddler having an outburst or meltdown. They may be more likely to lose control of their emotions or make poor choices if they are:
Are timeouts good or bad for toddler misbehavior?
- Timeouts give time and space for parents and kids to cool down in a moment of frustration, anger, or conflict.
- Timeouts encourage a child to reflect on their choices and modify their behavior.
- Timeouts are a healthier and safer discipline strategy than hitting or spanking, which can cause more aggression and misbehavior.
Some experts argue that timeouts — especially when used incorrectly or too frequently — can cause emotional damage to your child. For example, putting a child in timeout for having an understandable emotional reaction (like being frightened by a loud noise, or feeling sad when something bad happens) can send the message that they can't share their feelings with their parent or caregiver.
Most child psychologists agree: when timeouts are used correctly, they are a safe and effective behavior management tool.
How to give a toddler a timeout
Follow these expert-approved tips to ensure that a timeout to discipline your toddler has the impact you want.
Start with a clear warning. Let your toddler know that their choice or behavior isn't okay. Be very clear and direct about your expectations. For example, "If you hit the dog again, you are going to timeout." If your child follows your direction, be sure to offer plenty of praise. If not, it's time to follow through.
Explain why they are in timeout. Tell your child why they are going to timeout. For example, "You have to go to timeout because you hurt the dog again." Speak calmly and firmly without shouting or lecturing. Take your toddler to their timeout space gently and safely without engaging in more conversation.
Set the timeout timer. Once your child is in the timeout space, tell them that they need to stay there until you allow them to get up. While they are in timeout, do not let them talk, play with others, or play with toys. If your toddler gets up, gently return them to the timeout space and remind them that they must stay until you let them get up.
End the timeout. The CDC recommends that a good rule is one minute of timeout for each year of your child's age. In other words, a two-year-old would sit in timeout for two minutes, a three-year-old for three minutes, and so on. When you end the timeout and allow your toddler to get up, you may want to offer a reminder of your expectations. For example, "Please remember the rule: we touch our pets with gentle hands."
Praise good behavior. Offer lots of praise for the next good thing that your toddler does. This is a form of positive reinforcement for following rules, making good decisions, and meeting behavior expectations.
How to create a timeout space for a toddler
An effective timeout space for a toddler has a few important characteristics. If you keep these tips in mind, it can help your timeout be more effective for your toddler.
Remove distractions from the timeout space. Make sure there aren't toys, books, or screens within reach that will distract your child.
Make sure it's a safe spot. Avoid putting your child where you cannot see or hear them, or in a place where they could fall or otherwise get hurt.
Be consistent. Plan ahead for the spot you will use as a timeout space. Use the same place every time your toddler is in timeout.
Other tips for managing toddler misbehavior
If you're finding that timeouts are not working well for your family or your toddler, there are a few things you can keep in mind and try.
Set clear and reasonable expectations for your toddler. Make sure that you're not expecting your child to behave in a way that is developmentally beyond their skills. Remember that toddlers do not have the same emotional self-control that older children and adults do. Try to help them understand rules, boundaries, and what to expect to set them up for success.
Be consistent with using any methods of discipline. Experts recommend that parents and caregivers use timeouts somewhat sparingly — not for every single time your child tests a boundary. Using positive reinforcement (such as by praising your child when they do something right, or using stickers or reward charts) can help encourage good behavior as well.
Prevent frustrations that trigger meltdowns or tantrums. There are a few ways that you can help your child understand your behavioral expectations and minimize their sense of frustration. These include:
- Give your child words for feelings and emotions. (For example, "You can't reach the blue crayon. That feels frustrating! Can I help?")
- Avoid power struggles when possible. (For example, find compromises or cooperate on challenging tasks.)
- Allow your toddler to make as many choices as reasonably possible. (For example, "It's time to leave the park! Do you want to walk to the car, or would you like me to carry you?")
- Model healthy, positive behaviors. (For example, when your child sees you handling a hard or unexpected situation, model healthy strategies like taking deep breaths.)
- Make sure your toddler isn't hungry, uncomfortable, overtired, or otherwise stressed.
Ask for help
Toddlers, like children of all ages, can be a challenge. If you're overwhelmed or unsure how to manage your toddler's behavior, you can ask for help. Call your child's doctor and let them know about your concerns. They can discuss strategies, offer advice, and suggest next steps like testing or referrals to other professionals if needed.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
American Psychological Association: "The case against spanking."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Creating a Time-Out Space.", "Steps for Using Time-Out."
Child Mind Institute: "Are Time Outs Harmful to Children?"
KidsHealth: "Temper Tantrums."
Pacer Center: "Tantrums, Tears, and Tempers: Behavior is communication."
ZERO TO THREE: "Toddlers and Challenging Behavior: Why They Do It and How to Respond."