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My Child Won’t Stay in Time Out

Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Having a hard time with time out? Do you find yourself caught in a battle of the wills? Before you throw your hands up in despair, I have some answers for you! Read on to find out how you can handle this common parenting dilemma.

If you have read my previous article on time outs, you will hopefully now know how to use time outs effectively. You will also know what kinds of behaviors require time out and how to redeem the moment once the time out is over. What you may still be wondering, however, is, “What do I do if my child won’t go to or stay in time out?” If you asked this question, you are not alone. Here we will explore how you can deal with this common parenting dilemma.

Don’t make it a power struggle. If you have seen the TV show, SuperNanny, you have likely seen her version of time out in action. It goes something like this: child misbehaves, child is sent to time out (or dragged there by a parent), child gets up and runs through the house, parent chases said child through the house to repeat the previous steps until both are exhausted and the timer mercifully rings. I feel that this is an unnecessary struggle that can perpetuate power and control issues. This approach takes what was just one misbehavior and inevitably creates a series of additional offenses that will have to be addressed as well.

Realize what time out is and what it is not. Time out is simply that – the clock in your child’s day has stopped. He has moved outside of the circle of blessing with his behavior or attitude and his day does not move forward until he is ready to make it right and rejoin the rest of the family inside the circle. It is not a punishment in and of itself. It is an opportunity for his heart to soften. There is no magic in the passage of time dictated by a dollar store kitchen timer. If we can see time out with these glasses, our approach to time out refusal will be much different from that of SuperNanny.

Tell your child what you expect and then detach yourself. Tell your child to go to time out and that you will know that he is ready for it to begin when he is seated and quiet. Then (here’s the hard part) walk away. Yes. Walk away. Your work is done for the moment. After all, your day has not timed out. You will want to keep a watchful (but unnoticed) eye on your little ones. Any attempts to engage you with further misbehaviors need to be ignored. You may want to remove other children from his proximity (“come help Mommy in the kitchen”) because even innocent onlookers can be reinforcing to negative behavior (remember what we learned about positive opposites?). Any contact (visual, verbal or physical) will be reinforcing to your child in this state. You want to eliminate all methods of reinforcement.

But, what if . . . .? Right now, you can likely come up with a host of scenarios that will challenge this approach to time out. What if he picks up something to play with? What if he screams at me? What if he runs around the house? You may have to lose a battle to win the war. Remember, your child’s day has timed out. NOTHING happens until that time out is completed. He is in charge of how tedious he will make this. You will answer any and all questions with this following phrase, “No. Your day has stopped. You have a time out to complete.” This means no snack, no T.V., no playing outside. Nothing.

It will work. You may have your doubts in the midst of this and wonder if you made a mistake. You may see your child wandering around the house when he is supposed to be in time out and feel incompetent. But take a minute and think of these alternatives and the message they would be sending your child: chasing him around the house (he would get the message he is in charge), throwing your hands up and doing nothing (he would get the message he is not accountable for his behavior), or physically restraining him in the time out area (he would get the message that disobedience keeps you close and engaged). This disengaged but firm way will achieve the results you want, a submissive and repentant heart. It may just not happen in the time frame you would prefer.

Keep in mind, time out isn’t your only tool in your parenting tool box. What works for some children may not work for others. We need to use our best judgment to decide what consequences will move our child from rebellion to repentance. Only you, the parent, will know what that is. You will learn with trial and error. Parenting is not easy. But anything worth doing takes work. If you put the effort in now, you will reap great character-building rewards later.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker with a specialization in children and families. CfP is the place she combines some of her very favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She loves encouraging parents to build their families upon Jesus, the one true Cornerstone. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring children.


  • Hello. I have a similar situation as Kristen. But my son is 4 years old. Today he was in the timeout area for 2 hours (i say timeout area because timeout hadn’t happened yet because he kept screaming and standing up and stomping away from the seat.) I sat him down over 200 times. I kept completely calm. Gave him water and the most I said to him was telling him again why he was getting a timeout, and my expectations for the timeout… he needs to be sitting and to be quiet/not screaming for 4 minutes (since he is 4 years old).
    For the timeouts that you do, how long do they last for? And when do you start timing it? Do you have a specific area they need to be quiet in? I like the sound of your approach I’m just trying to understand all the rules so that if we try this that I can explain them to my son so he understands my expectations.

    • Hi Tiff,
      A couple of things – I would not continue to physically place him in the time out area. This constant interaction with you is simply re-enforcing the behavior. Time outs are not always the best response to every behavior. Think of it as a need to re-group. Situations that require this are hitting someone, screaming, refusing to obey. Situations where logical consequences might be better are things such as, not turning the T.V off when asked, not picking up toys, etc.

      At a time of peace, you can show him where you expect him to be until he calms down (you don’t have to call it time out if that word has become associated with struggle in your home). I like the bottom of the stairs because it’s usually out of the way and they are immoveable. You can say something like, “This is your calm down spot. I will ask you to come here when you are not in control of yourself. Once you are sitting still and quiet, I will come and sit next to you and we will talk about what to do next. You’re day is on pause until we have that talk.”

      The 4 minutes is pretty arbitrary. It’s really more about the heart of the child and if they are ready to accept what they did was wrong. Busy yourself nearby but don’t engage. If you feel the need to say anything as he wanders about, you can say, “You’re day is on pause until you are sitting quietly in your calm spot.”

      How long he needs to calm down is really up to him.

      If you find that he is unable to self-soothe or calm himself for long periods of time, this might not be the right approach for him and it might be worth having a talk with your pediatrician or a developmental specialist.

      I hope that helps,

  • Toddlers refuse time outs because it means a few minutes of immobility in a nonstimulating place. They are always on the go and constantly need stimulation.

  • I have a spirited and hyperactive 2 year old who will not, under any circumstances, sit down for time out. We have a designated chair. If we put her there for time out, she gets up immediately (within 1 second). If we try to sit her back down, she will hit and/or kick us and get up. If we keep putting her back in the chair, she gets angry, throws herself on the floor in a tantrum, and bangs her head on the floor. We would literally be trying to get her into this chair for 3 hours and she’d probably have a concussion by then. When these things happen, she is well-rested and fed. She is just incredibly stubborn, strong-willed, and challenging. Do you have any other suggestions?

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