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20 Tips on How to Effectively Use Time Outs for Toddlers

In our household, using time outs for our toddlers became an effective and important tool for correcting behavior.

I thought after the sleepless baby nights, the hardest phase of parenting was over. I was very wrong, because you see I hadn’t met my toddler yet. My toddler melts my heart while moments later knows how to push my buttons like no one else.

So, for all of the toy throwing, hair pulling and screaming, there are time outs which can be a great parenting strategy. However, it can also be an epic waste of your time if not done correctly. 

Seriously, perfecting the time out process is so key. It dramatically changed my toddler’s behavior!

Everything from when you should use a time out and how long a time out should be to the language used before and after the time out is crucial.

With these changes, time outs became an effective discipline method in our house. I know this because I can actually see a difference in how my toddler handles conflict, which to me is a real measure of success.

Parenting a toddler is hard work and you need useful tools and strategies to help you along the way. Here I will share with you everything I know about toddler time outs. My failures and successes along with tips and advice in hopes that something here will help you along your journey of parenting your toddler.

When would timeout be the most effective discipline strategy?

I used to think of when to use a time out in terms of actions and behavior. For example, hitting would be a behavior that resulted in a time out.

Instead, I encourage you to use time outs when your toddler has lost control of their emotions. (I promise if you keep reading you will really see the value in this!)

What do I mean by losing control of their emotions?

Well, as adults, we have had lots of practice with emotions and have all found ways to process them. Your toddler hasn’t and since a toddler doesn’t have a lot of practice at calming down, the result from these emotions are usually explosive behaviors such as screaming, grabbing, hitting, biting, etc. The root cause of bad behavior, bad attention and bad decisions is not having a good internal system of dealing with those emotions. Time outs can give a toddler this.

The goal of time out for me is not for them to feel bad or to not do an action because they are afraid of the consequence. Those goals will prevent a certain behavior, but the reward is short lived. I wanted to prevent further behavior and eventually prevent it without me having to intervene.  

For other behavior such as refusing to cooperate, there are better methods than a time out to get your toddler to listen, such as a visual timer. Another helpful method is natural consequences such as when you put your coat on, then we can go outside. It becomes a simple choice for your toddler, and it avoids the power struggle. It also teaches logical consequences. Time outs and coats having nothing to do with each other but going outside and coats are a logical pair.

What age to start time outs and how long should a time out be?

Before we get into all the details on the how-to of time outs, some basic information of age and time.

We started using time outs with our 2 year old. We still use them with our 3 year old but she will usually say she needs space when her emotions start to get the best of her now. The benefit of using the 3-step time out I outline below! Additionally, our 5 year old now rarely needs time outs as well.

How long should time outs be? A good rule of thumb would be the number of minutes match the age. For instance, a 2 year old would have a 2 minute time out.

Approaching “time out” behavior (warnings)

This is when your child is on thin ice. Sometimes you turn around and see them throwing.  Other times you see their emotions escalating and you know what is about to happen next. If at all possible use these tactics to give your toddler the opportunity to change course. Here are ways you can try to help your toddler navigate the situation, help correct their behavior or encourage a break.   

Identify their feelings and suggest a solution. I see that you are feeling mad that your friend is playing with the truck. Do you want to ask if you can have a turn? (another idea especially for siblings is to set a taking turns timer, you can give the child waiting a timer, it’s seriously magic and really helps them wait.)

Encourage a break. Other times when I know my child is past looking for a solution because her emotions are getting out of control, I try to get my toddler to take a break. I might say, “you really want that toy. Your friend is playing with it now so that must be frustrating. What should you do? Wow this is tricky. Do you want to take a break? We could read a little book to feel calmer and then think of some good solutions. Once we feel calm, we can come back and try again?” 

Help correct the behavior. For example, if I am trying to put my toddler’s shoes on and they are running away from me, then I might say something like: “I see you want my attention. I like to play too but this is bad attention. I know it is so much fun to play with mom. If we get our shoes on quick, I can give you my attention. Hurry let’s put your shoes on quick. We can then play chase around the house before we get in the car.” That will be good attention.

HALT (hungry, angry, lonely and tired). When my toddler starts acting out, a very helpful toddler phrase is HALT (hungry, angry, lonely and tired). Most of the times, my toddler is actually just hangry. So, if I see her behavior start to turn for the worst, I offer a snack break. My toddler’s behavior is almost always tied to one of these four so when I can identify it, then I can usually fix it quickly. It took me a long time however, to realize that my toddler, while they are speaking a lot, isn’t always able to put things together such as I’m feeling hungry, maybe I should ask for a snack.

Sometimes those strategies work, which is great. Your toddler practiced the right way to handle conflict. And sometimes those strategies don’t work which is where the time out happens.

Toddlers don’t know how to reset. They won’t hear anything you say until they have regained control of their emotions. So the next step is the 3-step time out.  

Remember that toddlers are not logical beings. Therefore, their solutions to their emotions sometimes make no sense. For instance, it is common for toddlers to hit when they want you to play with them or they want your attention.

The Amazing 3 Step Time Out Method

Here are the steps I use for every time out with our toddlers.

1. Time out (or any other name)

The first step is to simply remove your child from the situation and bring them to the time out spot. You can pick what you call it and set it up however you like. I know people who prefer time in, take a break, time out chair, time out corner. My favorite comes from my favorite time out book, which is Jared’s Cool-Out Space. They make a corner look like outer space and that is the cool out space.

I also have a timer. I give my toddler the timer. I think watching it is calming and helps. It also allows me to be consistent about the time out time. I also give them other tools in the corner such as a glitter jar that they can watch. I first saw it on Emse and Roy, which is an awesome kid show if you haven’t found it yet. In their corner is also a few stuffed animals and blankets. The goal of the time out should be to get their emotions under control so they can try again. I also have a pillow so if they feel like hitting something, they have something to hit.

You will see so many articles and advice posts on telling your toddlers phrases like do not hit, hitting hurts. This does absolutely nothing! At this point, they need the time out. Once they have reset and calmed down, then you can talk to them. You have to wait until they are calmer (or catch them before they hit when the conflict has just started, and their emotions are not out of control).

Instead, I simply pick up my toddler and say, “it looks like we need to take a break. Once we are feeling better, we can try again.”

2. Problem Solve

Now that you have given your child a chance to calm down, the second step is to talk to them. The language here is really important.

If you say you are sitting in time out because you threw the truck, then you aren’t getting the most out of time outs. The reason is that the toddler had a reason they threw the truck. You need to help them realize that they threw the truck because they were angry. Most toddlers have no idea what angry is (or the feeling in their body) until you help them label it. A great saying is “name it to tame it”.

Additionally, they need to know you are on their side and that feelings are always okay but certain actions are not. I do this by using words like bad decisions, bad attention and bad behavior and then relate to their feelings. Toddlers are just like us. They usually can’t get past their emotions until someone acknowledges their side. Only then are they open to problem solving since they know you understand. Here are some examples:

It is okay to be mad. It is not okay to hit. Hitting hurts our friends (brother etc.) If someone took my truck, then I would be really mad too. (And then depending on age, I would guide them through some solutions such as “should we go find another truck and ask to trade?” or “what could be some good solutions instead of hitting?”)

Throwing your toy was a bad decision. It is okay to feel angry but not okay to throw. You did not want to share your toy. It is hard to share. What could be a good decision when you feel angry about sharing your toy? (give ideas if toddler doesn’t give you any ideas) The solution in our house here would be to find mom to help you work it out or to find another toy for yourself or your friend.

Your goals here are to:

  • identify the bad action, behavior, decision or attention
  • validate the emotion so they know emotions are okay to have
  • work together on different ways to have handled the situation, which is critical if you want them to do it differently next time

3.Try Again/Making Amends

Once you and your toddler come up with a solution, it is important to now go back and do that solution. If it is not possible to go back and do it again, then pretend play it out just the two of you. This step right here is where the change in behavior will come from. It will take more than a few times but the more you follow through with this step, the better your toddler is getting on handling new conflicts and situations.

This is also the point where we make amends. If our actions hurt someone, then we need to make sure they are okay. You could ask your toddler to say I’m sorry or ask them to ask their friend if they are okay.

The brain is a muscle and the more you practice anything, the better you get at it. They will not be able to do any better next time if they are not given tools.

My toddler would drive me nuts with her behavior and it seriously felt like we were doing time outs around the clock. Once we started this method, I now see her telling other kids she needs space when she is getting frustrated. She also is the one to help other kids navigate their conflicts by suggesting a taking turns timer or finding another toy. She turned 3 a few months ago.

What if they won’t let you leave?

Sit and model it with them. I know, this doesn’t seem like a time out.

But you need to remember the bigger goal. There is a reason they won’t let you go. Their emotions are so big and out of control, most toddlers feel a lot of fear when they can’t get a handle on their emotions.

Additionally, you are also probably needing your own space to deal with being frustrated with your toddler’s behavior. It is true for me.

Channel that frustration and show your toddler what you expect of them. Show them that you can realize your emotions are also big right now and that you are going to model what to do with big emotions. You are going to sit and take deep breaths until you are calm.

You are not going to scream or hit or throw things. Honestly, it was hard for me to do, which was eye opening!

It really is just noise

This one was really important for me. I had to realize that sometimes they need to let their feelings out. It is okay if they want to scream. I usually say if you need to scream, let’s find a good place for you to do that. Or if you need to hit, let’s find something to hit such as a pillow in the time out corner.

There is no reason timeout can’t be about getting your emotions out in a healthy way.

Other helpful time out tools

Practice makes perfect

Read about it or pretend play it. This is great for a problematic behavior that has become habit. They need a lot of practice making the opposite behavior the new habit. We had dolls who would get into all types of play pretend conflicts. It gave my toddler a chance to try out solutions without her emotions high. Also, find as many kids books as you can on the subject to give your toddler even more chances to learn about the emotions and other ways to handle those emotions.

Toys can also go in time out

Another tactic you can use is to put the problematic toy in a time out until a solution is reached. It is also a very effective time out if putting your toddler in time out isn’t working. This can be the case for a very little toddler. The best part of putting toys in time out is it is a logical consequence. If you throw the train, then the train has to go in time out. I follow the same 3 step method here. Usually, my toddler will scream and fuss for a minute and when she regains control of her emotions, we then problem solve how we could have handled the situation differently. I then will give the toy back for my toddler to try the new solution out.

Red, Green and Yellow Zones

When your toddler is faced with a conflict or hard emotions, they don’t know how to communicate. They also usually don’t know what to do. The 3 zones gives them an easy way to communicate with you that they need some help with a conflict or emotion.

My toddler will give me her angry face and say I’m in the red zone! She is telling me her feelings which is huge progress! This gives me the opportunity to help her. I will usually say “okay, thanks for telling me you are in the red zone.”

Pair it with a sticker chart

Mistakes are how we learn. To incentivize my toddler to go back and try it again/make amends, I give them stickers if they follow through after their time out. I want my kids to know mistakes are okay but it is what you do after the mistake that matters.

Sibling Fighting

Sibling fighting has its very own special paragraph here in the time out post because it is special. It is special because usually you only have to deal with one side of a conflict, your own child. With siblings, it becomes complex.

They both have feelings and their own view on why they acted the way they did. I avoid trying to assign blame. Instead, I try to help them navigate the situation by stating observations such as “it looks like you both want the polly pocket house, that is tricky because there is only one polly pocket house” What are some solutions? Sometimes, they will both give solutions and work it out.

Other times, emotions get the best of both of them, so they both take a time out. If one of them is already acting out with bad behavior, I just take that child and put them into time out until they are able to calm down and talk.

But in all honesty, if sibling fighting is a big struggle in your house, then you need the Siblings Without Rivalry. It literally saved me.

Time Outs  

Toddlers fly off the handle a lot. Your kid is normal if they don’t yet have the skills needed to share and navigate friendships. They are trying to understand all of the rules while also just learning how to move their body as well as learning to communicate with words.

Time outs for toddlers can be an effective discipline strategy. One that will help them regain their emotions, think through the conflict and try again. I hope by sharing my experience with time outs and the methods we use, will help you with your toddler.

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