Rewards & Consequences

A Kinder “Time-Out” That Really Works

Traditional time-outs rely on the “crazy idea that to make children do better, we must first make them feel worse.” This can be especially harmful for children with ADHD, who often rebel against this old-school discipline strategy. Improve your child’s behavior — and his self-esteem — by introducing him to new, improved time-outs.

A young girl with ADHD holding a clock, smiling after a time-out that really worked
Girl holding red clock

Do Time-Outs Work for Children with ADHD?

The time-out has been a popular discipline method in the ADHD parenting community. One best-selling book (and accompanying video) tells parents of ADHD-labeled kids to count “1…2…3…,” and if the child hasn’t complied with the parent’s command during the count, he or she must go to the time-out area for five minutes.

But do time outs really work? Unfortunately, using a time-out as a punitive method with kids diagnosed with ADHD may turn out to be counterproductive. Two prominent researchers, Thomas Zentall, Ph.D., and Sydney Zentall, Ph.D., have commented the effects of time-outs: “In general, time-out periods appear to be aversive to hyperactive children. If isolation really has a calming effect on hyperactive children, one would expect to see reduced activity during the time-out periods. However, we noted increased rather than decreased activity levels.” This may occur due to the need for many under-aroused kids to create their own stimulation in a place (the corner) that has very low levels of stimulation. Even if a punitive time-out controls a child’s behavior in the short run, it may come at the cost of the child’s self-respect.

How Offering Children Choices Improves Time-Outs

Child discipline expert Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., counsels parents to tell kids that it can be helpful to have a place where they can go when they feel upset or out of control. In their designated spot, they can do things to make themselves feel better, or to put themselves in a state of mind that will allow them to face the problem in a constructive manner.

[Free Resource: 50 Tips for Disciplining a Child with ADHD]

Nelsen suggests that the children be the ones to decide when they need to go to a time-out area. She even recommends that parents get a timer and have children set it to the amount of time they need to get themselves together. Places to go for time-outs could be anywhere: a bedroom, a special chair, or a bench on the school playground. If children associate the words “time-out” with punishment, rename the space: Call it the thinking corner, quiet space, home base, energy place, or chill-out spot. In this space, children begin to see the area as a place for renewal, not a place for feeling bad about themselves.

To those skeptical about the positive time-out, Nelsen insists that it can work if parents give the tactic enough time (three to six weeks), and if they adopt a positive attitude of encouragement and respect for their child. “Where did we ever get the crazy idea,” Nelsen writes, “that to make children do better, we must first make them feel worse?” A positive time-out gives kids a way to get a grip on their own behavior, and allows them to take a role in becoming capable people.

Excerpted with permission from The Myth of the ADHD Child: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion, by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. ©2017 by Thomas Armstrong. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

How Can I Give a Smarter Time-Out?

Because you’re changing the purpose of a time-out from passive punishment to working out problems, suggest activities that your child can do in the time-out area to help him gain control and feel better. Possibilities include:

[Free Parent Resource: ADHD Discipline Strategies]

  • Visualizing an image that helps him cope (a special place in nature, a favorite trip, or an imaginary journey).
  • Meditating (focus attention on the inflow and outflow of breath, notice distractions that pop up, and return to focus on the breath).
  • Doing physical relaxation exercises (the yoga pose called the Cat) or imagining that you’re in a cozy elevator. As you feel it slowly descend, you feel more relaxed.
  • Thinking about, writing down, or drawing the solutions to his or her problem.

ADHD Discipline: Next Steps

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