5 tips for taking a mutual time-out with your child

Tantrums and meltdowns can be overwhelming for kids and parents. Mutual time-outs can give you both a moment to calm down. 

By Andrew Kahn, PsyD

Updated November 28, 2023

When emotions are running high, a mutual time-out gives kids and parents a chance to step away and cool down. It’s not a punishment for kids and it’s not one-sided. Instead, it’s a “sports-style” time-out where everyone takes a quick break. 

Planning ahead can help parents and kids use this strategy successfully. And practicing when you’re both feeling calm can be a big help. 

Use these five tips for taking a mutual time-out with your child. 

1. Choose calm-down spaces ahead of time. 

Decide ahead of time where each of you will go during the mutual time-out. To our bedrooms? To certain chairs in the living room? Coming up with a plan when you’re both calm can help you follow that plan when you’re feeling big emotions.

Brainstorm with your child. And keep in mind that some kids may want to stay close to their parents when they’re upset.

If you’re worried about self-harm or any harmful behavior, you can choose calm-down spaces that allow you to keep an eye on your child.

2. Always set a time for coming back together. 

You can calmly say, “Let’s go to our calm-down spaces. I’ll come check on you in five minutes.”

It’s important to make it clear how long you and your child will be away from one another. You want your child to use the time apart to calm down rather than worrying about being abandoned. 

For kids age 8 and younger, limit the time-out to three to five minutes. For older kids and teens, five to 10 minutes may be adequate. You can adjust the time based on what your child needs.

3. Suggest ways to use the time apart.

Encourage your child to choose a calming activity, like taking a few deep breaths. Remind your child that the goal of a mutual time-out is to take a moment to help you both cool off.

After the time-out, it’s OK if your child is showing some emotion like crying or looking sad. But if your child still looks agitated or is being disrespectful, re-set the timer to help your child cool off some more.

4. Avoid stand-offs.

If your child refuses to go to their calm-down spot, you can still go to yours. Giving yourself a chance to calm down can help things from escalating.

Just remember to keep safety top of mind. If you’re concerned about harmful behavior, go to a calm-down space that lets you keep an eye on your child.

5. Schedule mutual time-out “fire drills.”

The more you practice mutual time-outs when calm, the easier it will be to use this strategy when you and your child are having big feelings.

It’s also important to encourage kids to take a self time-out when they feel like they’re getting upset or when they just need a moment to relax. Remind them to return to the situation and address it once they’ve cooled off. 

To learn more strategies to help your and your child manage big emotions, watch or listen to What Now? A Parent’s Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns.