For those of us who celebrate Christmas, you and/or the children in your life have probably feared the dreaded promise of coal from Santa for being “naughty”. Let’s face it, we’re all naughty sometimes, even during the holidays. With the fear of being a Scrooge, I’ve decided to talk about how to try and minimize that inevitable naughtiness of children this holiday season – so the children can get their gifts, of course. And maybe also so you can regain some sanity.

That’s right, guys. I’m talking about time-out. You might be thinking, “Mariah, it’s the holidays, and you want to talk about time-out? I’ve already tried time-out and it doesn’t work.” I’ve seen so many versions of time-out that sometimes I wonder if we’re all even trying to do the same thing. One study found that only 3% of moms in the sample were using time-out in a way consistent with the science behind it, which is “removal of the child from a reinforcing environment and placing them in a less reinforcing environment to decrease undesired behavior” (Drayton et al., 2017). That’s ok – we’re all just trying our best. What I’m hoping to do is help give a little more structure for how to do time-out in a way that can make this as effective as possible. So here we go:

  1. How does it start? Ask the child to stop doing the undesired behavior. Count to five out loud. If the child continues to do the undesired behavior, say, “If you don’t _____, then you will go to time-out.” Then count to five out loud again. If your child has stopped the undesired behavior at this point, congrats! Give them verbal or social positive reinforcement. Something as easy as, “thank you for playing nicely with your sibling” can go a long way. Stay away from “not” statements, such as, “thank you for NOT hitting.” What the child still hears is the undesired behavior. If the child continues the undesired behavior, it’s time to put them in time-out. It is important that this is immediate and consistent.
  2. Where do I do time-out? Time-out is ideally an isolated chair in a corner of a home where the child can be observed. Put the chair far enough away that the child cannot hit or kick the wall. If the child repeatedly leaves the chair, it’s important to have a Plan B room with minimal stimulation and items that cannot break. The goal is to have a safe and boring place void of attention and anything entertaining. At this point, tell the child that they need to stay there until you tell them they can leave.
  3. How long should time-out last? For a distressed child, even a minute in time-out can feel like eternity. If they have no expectation for how long they will be there, it can be easy to get hopeless and frustrated. It is important to have a set duration. Many experts will give the rule of one minute for each year of life (so a 4 year old would be in time-out for 4 minutes). However, there has been recent research that two minutes of time-out is effective and that longer durations don’t work any better (Abdullah, 2017). Let the child know that the timer only runs while they are quiet and it resets if they yell/cry/bid for your attention. It can sometimes be effective to have a timer that the child can see so they know how much time is left.
  4. What do I do while the child is in time-out? While the child is in time-out, it is important to not give them any attention – no matter what pleas, threats or name-calling comes out of their mouth. Reminding them to “think about what you did wrong” or even telling them to stop screaming can all be reinforcing. So as hard as it might be, the silent treatment is best. Continue doing whatever you were doing, periodically peeking over to make sure they’re still there.
  5. When is time-out over? Time out is over when the child has been quiet for the allotted amount of time. However, afterwards it is important to have the child do whatever you had asked of them prior to the time-out (if feasible). If the child refuses, the time out is repeated. Remember to always praise for positive behavior and compliance.

Now that you got it, teach the children the rules of time-out before disaster strikes. Things like what kinds of acts merit a time-out and what it will look like. The less of a surprise this process is, the better. Another important piece is to practice time-out. Make it a group activity when everyone is calm where you practice acting out “good” and “bad” time-outs with multiple people (not just the child). This helps them feel less singled out, creates healthy expectations, gives them a good idea of how long your allotted time-out time feels like, and can even be fun sometimes! Overall, have a plan, be consistent, and remember to always balance time-out with positive reinforcement for good behaviors. Happy holidays and cheers to less coal this year!!


Abdullah, Maryam. “Six Ingredients to an Effective Time-Out.” Greater Good, 14 Aug. 2017, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_ingredients_to_an_effective_time_out.

Drayton, A. K., Byrd, M. R., Albright, J. J., Nelson, E. M., Andersen, M. N., & Morris, N. K. (2017). Deconstructing the Time-Out: What Do Mothers Understand About a Common Disciplinary Procedure?. Child & Family Behavior Therapy, 39(2), 91-107.