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How To Handle a Child Who Won’t Stay in Time Out

Boy sitting alone - child won't stay in time out
Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

If your child won’t stay in time out, you are not alone. With these tips you won’t have to hold them in time out or throw your hands up in despair.

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 create time in for God when 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 time out a power struggle

The punishment version of time out 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 child through the house only to repeat the previous steps until both are exhausted and the timer mercifully rings.

This is an unnecessary struggle that can perpetuate power and control issues and reinforce the very behaviors you are trying to address. This approach also takes what was just one misbehavior and inevitably creates a series of additional issues that will have to be addressed as well.

Realize what time outs are and what they are not

A 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 he is in need of reset, a fresh start. It is not a punishment in and of itself. It is an opportunity for his heart to soften.

The passage of time cannot magically address misbehavior. And sitting alone in a chair has no ability to address the heart of your child. Time out is simply a pause. The real work happens when you sit with them once they are calm and quiet.

Tell your child what you expect and then detach yourself

Tell your child to go to time out and that you will know he is ready to talk when he is seated and quiet. 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 the time out area. Any attempts to engage you with further misbehavior 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 and will delay the reset opportunity. You want to eliminate all methods of reinforcement. You want to stay near, but detached.

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?

Remember, your child’s day is on pause. NOTHING happens until that time out is completed – indicated by him sitting calmly and quietly. He is in charge of how tedious he will make it.

In the case of a child who is walking around calmly but refusing to sit, you can answer any and all questions with this following phrase, “We will talk about it after you are seated and quiet.”

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, maybe even playing with a toy, when he is supposed to be in time out and feel incompetent.

But take a minute and think about these alternatives and the message they would send to your child:

  1. If you chased him around the house, he would get the message he can control you – this can actually make children feel less safe.
  2. If you threw up your hands and gave in and said in exasperation, “You never listen to me!” he would get the message he is not accountable for his behavior.
  3. If you physically restrained 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 child who is ready for a fresh start. 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 approaches 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 therapist who offers individual and parent counseling to residents of Connecticut. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married with a young adult son and a teenage daughter.

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5 Comments

  • 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.
    Thanks!

    • 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,
      Laura

  • 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?