You’re Probably Doing Timeouts All Wrong

Advice for parents
April 24 2013 8:51 AM

Are Timeouts Messing Up Your Kids?

Only if you’re doing them wrong. (And yes, you probably are.)

Time out.
Time for a timeout.

Photo by Jacob Wackerhausen/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

So there I was last week, perusing a preschool parent handbook, when I stumbled across a curious anti-timeout policy. “Time-out is not an effective form of discipline,” the packet explained. “This focuses on the negative and alienates the child.”

I felt an immediate pang of guilt. I’ve given my almost-2-year-old a handful of timeouts—defined as a brief time away from rewarding stimuli like toys, parents, and friends—for hitting the dog, throwing rocks, and standing on chairs. A few Google searches later, I learned that proponents of attachment parenting advise against timeouts because the interventions give kids “the feeling of being rejected by their parents.” This backlash isn’t even that new—Child magazine published (and Parents magazine republished) an article in 2003 called “Why Time-Out Is Out.”

Have my attempts to raise a good little boy scarred him for life? Or are these anti-punishment policies way overprotective and perhaps even harmful?

Some psychologists do believe that if you practice good “positive discipline” techniques, by stating facts rather than demands, using distraction to steer kids away from danger, and working out solutions as a family, you shouldn’t need timeouts, or at least not very often. And timeouts can be ineffective, psychologically damaging, and make behavioral problems worse. But that’s not because they are inherently dangerous; it’s because so many parents and teachers misunderstand how they should be done. Indeed, plenty of research suggests that timeouts are safe and useful when parents employ them properly and in the right situations. For instance, evidence-based parenting programs, including the internationally implemented Triple-P Positive Parenting Program, recommend timeouts, and such programs have found that the interventions successfully reduce misbehaviors as well as the risk that children will suffer from psychological issues like anxiety and depression. And in its guidance statement on effective discipline, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that “ignoring, removing, or withholding parent attention to decrease the frequency or intensity of undesirable behaviors” is “especially important in promoting positive child behavior.”

Timeouts may sound cruel, but they make sense when you consider their history and context. The term timeout is actually an abbreviation for timeout from positive reinforcement. Timeouts are based on the premise that kids should be raised in environments that are rich with “time-ins:” loving, positive interactions like “reading a story, laughing with them, fixing popcorn with them, or playing a game with them,” says Edward Christophersen, a psychologist and pediatrician at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., and the author of Beyond Discipline: Parenting That Lasts a Lifetime. When children in nurturing environments do something dangerous or defiant, the idea is to briefly take away positive reinforcement so that they learn to associate the good things—the time-ins—with good, safe behavior.

Timeouts don’t work very well, then, if you haven’t created a richly positive environment for your child. In other words, “it's the effort parents put into time-in that determines whether or not timeout works,” Christophersen says, so when parents and teachers categorically state that timeouts don’t work with their kids, it can be a warning sign of more serious problems in the home or school environment. If you rarely praise, hug, or interact positively with little Sammy, then acting up may be the only way he can get your attention, and for a kid, negative attention (such as when parents get mad) is better than no attention.

In addition, timeouts generally only work in positive contexts because the timeout needs to serve as a deterrent, something that takes away fun. If your daughter hits another child at a birthday party where she is generally having a blast, a timeout will probably be effective, because she really wants to keep eating cake with her friends. If, on the other hand, Johnny acts up during an hour-long church service and you attempt to give him a timeout for doing so, it’s probably not going to work because “he is thrilled to death at getting out of that dull and awful situation,” explains John Lutzker, director of the Center for Healthy Development at Georgia State University. In this case, the timeout is actually more fun than the alternative, so you’ve reinforced his bad behavior by offering him an escape.

This raises another point, which is that parents always need to be aware of what’s developmentally appropriate for their children. Your 18-month-old doesn’t deserve a timeout for not knowing how to share; sharing is a learned skill, and she probably hasn’t mastered it yet. Likewise, few 3-year-olds can entertain themselves quietly for 30 minutes during church sermons or while mom talks on the phone. (Although if mom keeps giving him brief reinforcements during the conversation—shoulder squeezes, winks, reassuring words—she might occasionally get away with it.) And if your 28-month-old isn’t cleaning up her room when you ask her to, it could be that she doesn’t know where to begin, so maybe it would help if you broke your instructions down into more manageable bits. Always ask yourself whether your child’s behavior is truly defiant or just a consequence of the fact that she doesn’t have the skills you think she has.

So what’s the proper way to initiate a timeout if your child has thrown her high chair across the room again? Calmly and simply. “We recommend stating the behavior clearly in terms of what the violation was: ‘Now you’re going to have to timeout because you engaged in this behavior,’ rather than saying, ‘You’re being bad’ or ‘That’s awful’,” Lutzker says. “It’s not supposed to be evaluative; it’s supposed to be factual.” Plus, when parents go into explanatory or pejorative diatribes, they are doing precisely the opposite of withholding attention. (Christophersen advises parents to keep explanations even shorter: “no hitting,” say, or “time out hitting.” Then, shut up.)

That brings us to another mistake parents commonly make with timeouts: They don’t really give timeouts, Christophersen says. Instead, they keep fretting over their kids, which can turn the timeout from a deterrent into a positive reinforcement. If your daughter cries during a timeout, don’t attend to her; she is understandably upset, but she will learn over time to self-soothe. If she laughs and pretends to be having a blast, don’t yell at her to be quiet. Just leave her be. And don’t require her to apologize or fess up at the end of the timeout, either. “The popular press has been quick and persistent in making up rules for the use of time-out that are not evidence based and, in fact, seem to have no factual basis whatsoever,” Christophersen explained in an article he wrote for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Developmental and Behavioral News in 2007.

Another common misconception is that you have to physically isolate a child during a timeout. The important thing is not where your child is but that he doesn’t get to interact with anything interesting, including you. This means that you can initiate timeouts in strollers, cars, chairs, even on the changing table—the key is to withhold attention and eye contact for a certain period of time or as long as the bad behavior persists. (If you do decide to isolate your child—which may be a good idea if he’s doing something dangerous, like throwing rocks—the rule of thumb is one minute per year of the child’s life. One study found, however, that for 4- to 8-year-olds, contingency-based releases, i.e., you can be done once you sit still on the chair for five minutes, were twice as effective at improving compliance after two and three weeks than were time-based releases.)

Overall, how well do timeouts work compared to other disciplinary tactics? In a systematic review of 41 studies published in 2012, psychologist Daniela Owen at the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy and her colleagues at Stony Brook University evaluated how well various types of nonphysical interventions improved kids’ subsequent behavior. This included forms of “positive” discipline like praise, encouragement, and hugs, as well as “negative” feedback like timeouts, ignoring, reprimands, and stern looks. They found that timeouts and other negative responses were associated with increased compliance in every study they reviewed, far more so than the “positive” disciplinary tactics. In one of the studies, for instance, moms of 27 defiant 3- to 7-year-olds were randomly split into three groups and were a) told to give their kids short commands followed by silence, even if their kids didn’t comply; b) told to give their kids short commands followed by timeouts if their kids didn’t comply; or c) not given any disciplinary instructions. After the groups tried out these techniques, the researchers evaluated the kids’ behavior and found that those in the timeout group were complying with their mothers’ requests 83 percent of the time, while those in the commands-only group complied 64 percent of the time. The kids in the nonintervention group fared the worst: They did what their moms asked only 28 percent of the time.

So what if you’re doing timeouts and they’re not working? First, keep in mind that it can take a few tries. “It’s not magic; it’s social learning,” Owen says. And consider reading more about time-outs so that you know you’re doing them right. (Children with behavioral problems or developmental conditions, such as oppositional defiant disorder or autism, may, however, need other interventions, so if your child remains difficult, talk to your pediatrician or make an appointment with a specialist.) Assuming you are using them correctly, though, you shouldn’t be scared that timeouts will harm your kids. In fact, Christophersen says, timeouts create the conditions for children to learn self-control: In time kids will “discover that they have the skills to self-quiet or to cope,” which can be empowering, he says. And let’s not forget the importance of timeouts for parents, too. They give us the excuse to focus on ourselves for a few minutes rather than our kids, take some deep breaths, maybe pour ourselves a glass of wine. Then we can remind ourselves just how much we love our little devils—even though they really should stop throwing toy cars at our heads.

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