Uncategorized • Oct 03, 2014

Time Outs – Are they hurting your children?

There was a recent article published in Time Magazine about time outs being bad for your children.  What??  Talk about a mixed message as a parent!

The authors of this article argue that parents should not use time outs because they are ineffective and equated this practice with “physical abuse.”  They instead propose that parents should use “time in” when a child misbehaves, which is when a parent sits with a child while talking or comforting them until they calm down.   It seems unfortunate that this article was published since the conclusions that where drawn about why we should reject time outs are not directly supported by research and this simply adds more misunderstanding to already vague and somewhat confusing method of discipline.

Time out, which actually stands for “Time Out From Reinforcement” has been supported in research for decades.  Effective use of a time out will decrease a behavior that we do not want to see repeated.  The key words here are “effective use.”  The term time out has become very ambiguous and now has many different meanings.  It has become synonymous with being grounded or being sent to your room.  It has also now become a strategy that parents use for all types of behaviors.   In my practice as a psychologist, I often hear from parents that time outs don’t work for their child; however, this is often related to the manner in which this technique is employed.  The psychology community continues to support the use of time out, though I do encourage parents to educate themselves on how to give effective time outs.

Do’s and Don’ts of Time Outs

  • Determine which behaviors are “timeoutable”
  • Chose a specific spot for time outs to take place
  • Practice how to do a time out before you actually use it
  • Give the time out immediately following the misbehavior
  • Set an expectation for your child to calm before leaving time out
  • Keep yourself calm
  • Remove all types of reinforcement
  • Be consistent and follow through
  • Follow up after the time out to praise your child for calming and to teach a more appropriate alternative behavior

A primary concern of the article in Time Magazine is that a time out leaves a child feeling isolated and distressed and instead parents should focus on building a loving relationship and comforting their child.  However, supporters of time out view all other time during the day and all other interactions between parents and their children as time in.  Consistent positive interactions between a parent and child are what allow a time out (which is temporary removal of that positive attention) to be effective.  Moreover, it is okay for a child to learn to tolerate some distress.  Distress is expected, unavoidable, and has to occur in order for a child to learn how to best deal manage it.

The authors’ description of a “time in” may very well be helpful for some children; more research would be needed to support whether this decreases disruptive behavior.  However, it does not mean that a time out is harmful or should not be used.  I’m not suggesting that a time out is effective for all children in all situations, but it is certainly a place to start and has empirical support when used appropriately.  As always, parents should consider developmental, familial, and environmental factors that may be playing a role if time outs are not working and should seek consultation as needed.

Society for Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology has created press release from Division 53 regarding the claims about Time Out.