Do they work? Are they actually bad for kids?
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 currently a parent, you’ve 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 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. Timeouts are safe and useful when parents use them properly and in the right situations.
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 Diseases Control all support timeouts as an effective parenting strategy. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that ignoring, removing or withholding parent attention to help decrease the frequency or intensity of undesirable behaviors is as 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, there was a review of 41 studies dating back to the 1970s that showed parents who generally engaging 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 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 timeout 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 that it can work with both 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 associated with increased compliance far more than the positive disciplinary tactics.
However, there are experts who are critics of timeouts. Even though they’re non-violent, these experts feel that they’re detrimental to children without significant benefit. One study completed 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 was the result of 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 have worse emotional health and less developed morality. Since children need to feel connected to feel safe and the fact that 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, reduces their self-esteem and may even be traumatizing. There isn’t any scientific evidence to support these theories though. In fact, many studies have found that timeout in conjunction with good parent-child relationship skills actually decreases trauma symptoms in children, helps them learn how to self-soothe and display greater self-control. One big supporter of not using timeouts is Dr. Daniel Siegal, a psychologist at UCLA School of Medicine. He says that the social isolation that is 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 saying that isolating a child in time-out could deny their profound need for connection during times of 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 that this sends the message that the child should figure out the situation on their own, which experts say most children aren’t mentally or emotionally capable of doing. One of the most vital core needs for a child is emotional attachment, which is the exact thing that parents give up when placing their child in timeout situation like this. The critics say that you’re banishing an upset child just 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 the relationship they have 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 a different way. 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 child while trying to take them to timeout or keep them there. Critics say that parents should partner with their child to find solutions and to see things from their perspective. They also find that prevention works best by providing positive guidance and emotion 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 comes at a cost.
There’s 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 of time or as long as the bad behavior persists. Make sure 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 are seeking. 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 state the behavior clearly in terms of what the violation was 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 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 giving the message that their out of control feelings are acceptable and can be regulated. When anyone, especially children are 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 to be twice as effective at improving compliance than time-based releases. One of the biggest mistake 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 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 to follow through with the request that led to the timeout in the first place. This is crucial in order for the child to learn appropriate behavior. If your child doesn’t do what the parent asks at this point, 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 of a pain for your child than going to timeout for three minutes, such as taking away privileges. Often, children will tell parents that they don’t care and still refuse to go to timeout. Instead of getting upset, remain calm and just 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 it needs to serve as a deterrent by taking something fun away. This is why it’s essential that the timeout isn’t 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 it is 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 to manage their own 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 sends the signal to your child that you understand that 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 be aware of 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 guiding 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 4 or 5. Most experts agree that when a toddler is whining or begging, the best way to quickly deescalate the situation is to find some way to compromise, if possible. It’s important to remember that toddlers are learning to express their newfound independence in ways that are acceptable to their parent. 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 really effective, even though some parents still try to use them. The best bet is to remove of privileges that are logically connected to the problem at hand for a period of time. For example, if a child refuses to turn off electronics when asked, then they don’t get 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 process 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 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.