As a child, you probably had some form of punishment when you were bad. If you were born after the 1960s, it most likely involved being placed in timeout. If you’re a parent, you presumably have used it at some point with your own kids. There is conflicting research on whether or not this is a good technique. How do you judge this? If you do decide to use timeouts to help correct your child’s behavior, how do you do one properly?
Parents probably aren’t surprised to hear that research shows children don’t listen to almost 40% of parents’ commands. This has led many parents to try a combination of methods, such as cajoling, distracting, reissuing commands (often multiple times), and threatening. While they do work for most children, it can leave parents exhausted. In the past, spanking and other forms of corporal punishment were the main disciplinary tools that parents in America used.
In the 1960s, researchers began to focus on another option: the timeout, which is short for a timeout from positive reinforcement. It has been recommended by psychologists ever since. There is no disagreement among professionals that sending kids into a timeout is far better than spanking or other similar disciplinary techniques. Researchers have consistently found that spanking creates more problems than it solves.
While children who are spanked usually comply with parents in the short term, they become increasingly aggressive in the long term. One 1990 study discovered that individuals who experienced these types of punishments when they were young were more likely to show aggression and delinquency in adolescence. This was even more likely than living in a high-crime neighborhood or having a parent with sociopathic tendencies. Instead of physical punishments, timeout is intended to be a break from fun without being particularly punitive. It’s meant to separate a child from a situation that has overwhelmed him into unacceptable behavior and provide a brief pause in a caregiver’s interaction with a child in order to allow the child to practice self-calming skills. When parents use them properly, and in the right situations, timeouts are safe and useful.
The idea is that timeouts are based on the principle that kids are raised in environments that have many more loving, positive interactions, or time-ins. Time-ins are positive, sometimes physical, reinforcements of good behavior. This can include periodically touching your child’s head, smiling at them, or saying a word of praise. These interactions, awareness of your child’s needs, and teaching about appropriate social skills are crucial. If children are raised in nurturing environments and do something dangerous or defiant, by briefly taking away positive reinforcement, they learn to associate the time-ins with good, safe behavior and timeouts with dangerous or bad behavior.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all support timeouts as an effective parenting strategy. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that ignoring, removing, or withholding parental attention to help decrease the frequency or intensity of undesirable behaviors is an important tool in promoting positive child behavior.
Research of kids with oppositional defiant disorder or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which are the two most commonly diagnosed causes of disruptive behavior in children, timeouts have been found to help correct problem behaviors. Not only is it more effective at modifying behaviors than physical discipline techniques, like spanking, it reduces the incidence of physical abuse by caregivers.
Many studies have found that most children respond exceptionally well to the kind of parenting characterized as authoritative. These parents set firm boundaries but pair their expectations with warmth and responsiveness. In 2012, a review of 41 studies dating back to the 1970s showed that parents who generally engage in this type of parenting, or mainly positive interactions with a little bit of negative reinforcement, had the best results.
According to experts, timeouts allow parents and children the chance to calm down. This can be helpful in parents doing less shouting, grabbing, or other aggressive forms of discipline. However, timeouts don’t work very well if parents haven’t created a richly positive environment for their children. If you rarely praise, hug, or interact positively with your child, then acting up may be the only way they can get your attention. For children, negative attention is better than no attention. Also, if a child is being ignored or treated badly, there’s no positive reinforcement to take a break from.
There is a significant amount of scientific research to showing that, when used correctly and in the context of a strong parent-child relationship, timeouts can be safe and effective. One study that appeared in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in 2019, looked at nearly 1,400 families and analyzed developmental data on kids beginning around age 3 and continuing up until age 11 or 12. The results demonstrated that among families who used timeouts as a form of discipline, the kids were not at increased risk for anxiety, depression, aggression, rule-breaking behaviors, or self-control problems when compared to the kids whose families didn’t use timeouts.
In 2010, researchers published a review of 30 years of data in the journal Education and Treatment of Children. Their findings concluded that timeouts are effective at both home and school and can work with typically developing children and those with special needs. Psychologists at the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy and Stony Brook University released a review of 41 studies in 2012 that evaluated how well various types of nonphysical interventions improved kids’ subsequent behavior. Included within the studies were forms of positive feedback, such as praise, encouragement, and hugs, and negative discipline, such as timeouts, ignoring, reprimands, and stern looks. The scientists concluded that timeouts and other negative responses were more associated with increased compliance than positive disciplinary tactics.
Many studies have found that timeout, in conjunction with good parent-child relationship skills, actually decreases trauma symptoms in children and helps them learn how to self-soothe and display greater self-control.
However, some experts are critics of timeouts. Even though they’re non-violent, these experts feel they’re detrimental to children without significant benefit. One study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that while timeouts are effective at getting toddlers to cooperate, it’s only temporary. In the study, the children who received timeouts misbehaved more than children who didn’t have them. This was the case even when the children’s mothers took the time to talk with them afterward. The researchers determined that this resulted from the children reacting to the apparent love withdrawal. They say that timeouts work through fear of abandonment.
Besides having worse behavior, the children who had timeouts tend to have worse emotional health and less developed morality. Since children need to feel connected to feel safe, and they’re likely to act out when they don’t feel safe, the researchers didn’t find the results surprising. The critics go so far as to say that timeouts ignore a child’s feelings, reduce their self-esteem, and may even be traumatizing. There isn’t any scientific evidence to support these theories, though.
Dr. Daniel Siegal, a psychologist at UCLA School of Medicine, is a big supporter of not using timeouts. He says the social isolation commonly done in the name of time-outs is harmful. When discussing the topic, he highlights brain-imaging research that found social exclusion and physical pain trigger similar patterns of brain activity. He further elaborates that isolating a child in time-out could deny their profound need for connection during distress.
One of the reasons this is probably the case is that timeouts are often administered inappropriately. When most children are placed in timeout, they are sent to a separate room, such as their bedroom. Experts say this sends the message that the child should figure out the situation independently, which experts say most children aren’t mentally or emotionally capable of doing. One of the most vital core needs for a child is an emotional attachment, which is the exact thing that parents give up when placing their child in a timeout situation like this. The critics say you’re banishing an upset child when they need you the most.
Another concern is that when a child is placed in timeout, they can feel resentful and stop communicating, which hurts their relationship with their parents. They might not tell their parents things that they should know and are more likely to lie to escape punishment. Critics of timeouts also feel that punishments create kids who are constantly looking outside of themselves for approval. They also think that children who are punished are less able to internalize moral lessons, which is what allows kids to act morally when no one is looking. So, even though the child fears getting in trouble, they don’t act differently. Instead, they try not to get caught.
Critics also say that timeouts don’t help kids with their upsetting emotions because it sends the message that you don’t want to deal with their challenging emotions. So, they view their emotions as unacceptable and unlovable. Another concern that critics have is many parents end up in physical brawls with their children while trying to take them to timeout or keep them there. Critics say that parents should partner with their children to find solutions and to see things from their perspective. They also find that prevention works best by providing positive guidance and emotional coaching. They say that doing “what works” doesn’t make it right or harmless. Yelling, threatening, berating, shaming, isolating, and hitting are all incredibly effective, but come at a cost.
No question that doing a timeout correctly is challenging because emotions are running high for both parent and child. One of the most important things that you can do is decide exactly what warrants a timeout before you ever need to give one and make sure this is clear to your children. It has to be specific and not based on your level of frustration. Choose one or two behaviors, like hitting and disobeying direct requests. Timeouts can take place anywhere. The key is to remove your attention and eye contact from your child for a certain period or as long as the bad behavior persists.
Ensure you do not interact with them, even if they’re crying, screaming, or laughing. Parents tend to talk too much to their kids before, during, and after time-outs. A lot of misbehavior in children is done to get attention, and scolding gives them the attention they seek. Don’t negotiate with your child. Giving more than one warning is counterproductive, and lecturing after the fact serves no purpose.
The best way to initiate a timeout is calmly and simply by stating the behavior clearly in terms of the violation, using as few words as possible, like “time out hitting,” and then shut up. If you do decide to isolate your child, the location should be a boring place, such as a chair in the dining room, where you can supervise them and they know that you’re nearby so they’re safe and will be available for when they’ve calmed down, but they’re not interacting with you until then. This will teach them to calm themselves while conveying that their out-of-control feelings are acceptable and can be regulated.
When anyone, especially children, is emotionally stressed, it sends you into fight or flight mode. This means that an upset child feels unsafe, and your goal should be to restore safety before you can teach appropriate behavior. A quick ending is vital. Contingency-based releases have proven twice as effective at improving compliance than time-based releases. One of the biggest mistakes parents make is to insist that time-outs last one minute for each year of a child’s age. That is only supposed to be a maximum time, not the rule. Usually, anywhere between 2 and 5 minutes is plenty of time.
Once they regain their composure, children should be welcomed back into the social thick of household life right away. Look for that first relaxation and then quickly get your child out of the timeout and move them on to something else. It’s better if the adult decides when the time-out is over.
One key thing parents often don’t do is follow through with the request that led to the timeout in the first place. This is crucial for the child to learn appropriate behavior. If your child doesn’t do what the parent asks, they should have another brief timeout. Don’t require them to apologize or fess up at the end of the timeout. It’s also important to have a plan for when, not if, your child refuses to go to timeout or leaves timeout early. It’s helpful to have a moderate backup consequence that is more painful for your child than going to timeout for three minutes, such as taking away privileges.
Often, children will tell parents they don’t care and still refuse to go to timeout. Instead of getting upset, remain calm and follow through on the privilege removal. The child doesn’t need to go to timeout this time. If it’s something that your child really wanted, they’ll be much more likely to comply with a timeout the next time. Remember, timeouts generally only work in positive contexts because they need to serve as a deterrent by taking something fun away. This is why the timeout mustn’t be an escape from something that your child doesn’t want to do. Otherwise, it reinforces the bad behavior.
Many parents tend to overuse timeouts, making them less effective. When your child displays desired behaviors, be sure to praise them. It’s just as essential to teach children what to do as what not to do.
So, you’ve been doing timeouts, and they’re not working?
Take a deep breath and remember that it can take several tries because it’s not magic, but social learning. If you’re using them correctly, timeouts won’t harm your kids. In addition, timeouts can give parents a moment to focus on themselves for a few minutes to take some deep breaths, which will help them manage their emotions. Not only does it make your discipline more effective because you aren’t making threats that you won’t carry out, but it models wonderful self-management for your children. If you want to teach your child emotional self-management, it’s key to do that before your child is in the middle of a meltdown because once they are, they no longer have reasoning capacity, and it’s too late to try to teach them.
If you see the warning signs of a meltdown occurring, take the time to calm your child down. This signals your child that you understand they’re experiencing big emotions at that moment, and you’re right there with them, so they know they’re safe. As a parent, you should always know what’s developmentally appropriate for your children. One thing to think about is whether your child’s behavior is truly defiant or just an outcome of the fact that they don’t have the skills you think they do. You can start to guide your children as to appropriate behavior when they’re very young, around the age of 2, but don’t expect the messages to sink in right away; that will come around the age of 4 or 5.
Most experts agree that when a toddler is whining or begging, the best way to de-escalate the situation quickly is to find some way to compromise, if possible. It’s important to remember that toddlers are learning to express their newfound independence in acceptable ways to their parents. When a child escalates to outright defiance of the rules, such as hitting, running away, or doing the opposite of the parent’s orders, then reasoning and negotiating are counterproductive. For older children (over the age of 6 or 7), timeouts aren’t effective, even though some parents still try to use them. The best bet is to remove privileges logically connected to the problem at hand for some time. For example, if a child refuses to turn off electronics when asked, they don’t get to use them for a while.
The majority of children don’t misbehave. They behave like kids. They don’t intentionally do things to be bad, but do them because it’s age-appropriate, they’re still learning, or they’re not getting some basic need met. In addition, they could be hungry, tired, overstimulated, or overwhelmed. Another issue is that they could be having difficulty processing whatever emotion they’re feeling. The key thing to remember is that all behavior is communication, and we, as parents, need to figure out what our children are trying to tell us.
Timeouts were never intended to be the end-all of discipline. Parents should have a big bag of tricks, including redirection (using distraction to interrupt a tantrum in progress) and prevention (not spending long at the grocery store when you know your child has had a long day). The concept of consistent, measured timeouts is easy enough to grasp, but putting it into practice is much more challenging.
As you practice, it becomes easier. Some experts feel that if you practice positive discipline techniques, like stating facts rather than demands, using distraction, and working out solutions as a family, you shouldn’t need timeouts very often. The key element to remember is that timeout isn’t a particular space or length of time, but a break from positive reinforcement.