Calling Time-Out to “Time-Outs”

Time outs continue to be a powerful and effective means of motivating children’s compliance through about age 11 or 12. The point of the time-out is to give a child the time and space they need to calm themselves down, regain the ability to think clearly, and then come back to the situation and make better decisions. While on an enforced time-out, children have the opportunity to learn how to “self-sooth” which is an important coping skill.

Time-out is supposed to be a brief pause in a caregiver’s interaction with a child, its purpose being to allow the child a chance to practice self-calming skills. What it “isn’t is a chair; it isn’t a corner; it’s not a length of time,” says Pediatrics professor Edward Christophersen, Ph.D. Of Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO, who helped pioneer the technique in the 1970s. “It’s supposed to be time out from positive reinforcement,” he says. “As soon as the concept became a chair, it was ruined.”

Research has established that 15 minutes is the maximum time that a child should be kept in time out.[1] However, shorter durations may be just as effective for behavior change. The biggest mistake parents make is to insist that time-outs last one minute for each year of a child’s age. According to Dr. Christophersen, the minute-a-year guideline is supposed to be a maximum time, not a hard and fast rule. A time-out is meant to give a child a break from a situation that has overwhelmed him into unacceptable behaviour. The sooner the child can get back in charge of his emotions and join the rest of his family, the better.

In addition, yelling at a child to “go to your chair” is like administering a verbal spanking. The only discomfort a child should be made to feel from time-out is the withdrawal of your attention, which is distressing on its own.

Some research suggests that time-out and ignore procedures also have negative side-effects for children. Social pain, the emotional reaction to being excluded from desired relationships, can hurt as much as physical pain.[2] Need some solid social science to convince you? The National Institute of Mental Health conducted a study in 1982 (the timeout method hasn’t changed since then) that found kids who had timeouts — or “love withdrawal,” as the study’s authors also called the method — were more misbehaved, even when moms in the study talked to their kids after their timeout reflection.

Premier parenting academic Alfie Kohn has written extensively about the negative effects on a child’s moral and psychological development due to timeouts and other love-withdrawal techniques. He cites child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who concluded that timeouts can cause “deep feelings of anxiety.” And if you’re telling yourself a timeout is not a punishment but rather a much-needed break for reflection and self-calming, let me ask you: Does your child think it’s a punishment? If so, then it is.

Describing timeouts in their book “How to Talk so Kids Can Learn,” Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish write, “As an adult you can imagine how resentful and humiliated you would feel if someone forced you into isolation for something you said or did.”

Here is the fundamental failure of the timeout: It’s tantamount to abandoning your kid when they need you most. If they’re acting up, it may be to get your attention. If they are upset or angry, they want you to connect with them. Your calm, listening presence or a long hug — not isolation — is what they need to reconnect to their rational brain.

At any age, a time-out should be followed by a brief but explicit conversation between parent and child making clear exactly what rule was broken, why following the rule is important, what the expectation is next time that situation arises, and an expression of the parent’s love for the child.

I bet most parents who use the timeout — which seems to work in the short run (perhaps because it triggers a child’s fear of abandonment, according to developmental psychologist Aletha Solter) — do so because it’s expedient. If we had an alternative that worked more effectively and just as swiftly, we’d gladly use it.

The answer is “time-ins.” That sounds too cute to be real advice, but maybe it’s just catchy enough that you will remember it when you’re driven to the point of anger and not thinking straight yourself. Fight the urge to push your troubled kid away and work to embrace them instead.

The clinical evidence also showed that time-outs don’t work unless parents practice time-ins – positive, sometimes physical, reinforcements of good behaviour. “Periodically, you touch your child’s head, or smile, or say a word of praise,” Dr Burt Banks, who teaches at the James H. Quilled College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University explains.

When you remove the option of distance and solitude, you have no choice but to engage. That step, by the way, is often all it takes to stop the behavior. But you can also help them calm themselves; a few deep breaths is remarkably effective.

And then you both can find a solution together as a team instead of in opposition. Listen fully and patiently to their version of the story. And talk about mitigating factors. Are they hungry, angry, lonely, tired, stressed or sick?

Sometimes there are no solutions. We all just need to be heard sometimes. After you understand where they’re coming from, try reflecting their feelings back to them. “You feel sad that the playdate has to end.” “That’s so frustrating when a plan doesn’t work out like we hoped.”

Time-ins demonstrate to them you care, even when times get tough. It conveys the message that their “bad” emotions (which are really just difficult, yet perfectly natural, ones) are as acceptable as their pleasant, happy emotions. Time-ins also teach kids to pay closer attention to their feelings and needs, and get better at finding solutions to their problems. These moments — when, reflexively, a timeout seems the easiest route — are great parenting opportunities to connect (aka love) and teach life skills.[3] [1] White, G. D.; Nielsen, G.; Johnson, S. M. (1972). “TIMEOUT DURATION AND THE SUPPRESSION OF DEVIANT BEHAVIOR IN CHILDREN1”. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 5 (2)
[2] MacDonald G, Leary MR. Why does social exclusion hurt? The relationship between social and physical pain. Psychol Bull. 2005; 131:202–223.