Have you ever noticed that parenting trends are like nutrition and health advice? First, there is the next big discovery, and then uh oh, we find out that there are kinks in the argument. Unfortunately, parents often read about the exciting new sensations and then miss the less exciting analysis that follows months or even years later that exposes the flies in the ointment.
Time-outs conducted improperly can hurt kids — but isn’t this true of any parenting strategy?
If you eliminate time-outs and negative consequences from your toolbox, you can just talk to kids about misbehaviors to curb their enthusiasm for hitting, spitting, biting and cussing like sailors, right? Will that work?
While it is true that time-outs can be misused, the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater in many online posts (most recently one from Time). Why trash the whole procedure when research on its benefits has been persuasive?
In 2015, Lauren Quetsch and her colleagues analyzed hundreds of studies in a review published in The Clinical Psychologist. They concluded that appropriate implementation of time-outs has produced positive outcomes. In psych lingo, this means that the levels of child problem behaviors and maltreatment have been reduced with capable use of this procedure.
A time-out is intended to help a child ceases to receive positive reinforcement, which may involve not getting attention for a few minutes or some time away from play. For instance, a parent may pre-arrange with a child that when he hits, he will have a three minute time out from attention, after which they may problem-solve or explore the emotions involved. Time-out was never meant to be punishment, which implies imposing a penalty or hurtful experience.
When time-outs are issued calmly and in the context of loving and mostly positive parenting, they can be an effective approach to discontinue problematic behaviors. By prioritizing a calming period, heart rates can be lowered and the reasoning processes in the frontal lobe can get back online (in both the parent and the child). Furthermore, the reinforcing power of parental responses that take place right after those distressing child behaviors can be removed so that behaviors don’t get worse.
Personally, I favor mindfulness during this silence so that parents can access their wise-minded and optimal approaches for re-connecting after a time-out. With younger kids, sitting quietly in your own time-out is a good idea. Modeling self-control demonstrates how everyone can get to calm. We can say, “I am upset about your hitting. I need to calm myself so I can think best about how we should handle it.” Or: “We need to take a breather.”
The sticky wicket in managing time-outs is that child misbehaviors can make parents really mad. Instead of thoughtful and calm responses, parents are apt to show their anger. They can threaten, coerce, reject, criticize, yell, psychologically abuse and even banish their child for long periods of time — all while using the term “time-out.” Importantly, they can also fail to give their child “time in,” which means giving children the positive attention they need to thrive. Without a positive and attentive relationship, parental influence doesn’t work effectively. In this instance, kids don’t need time-outs — they need more quality and child-centered nurturing.
Parental anger or misunderstanding can lead to bad time-outs, just like they can lead to all kinds of bad parenting. Learning about and practicing effective and evidence-based parenting approaches takes time, patience, and commitment. You might want to take a time-out to learn about them.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2016, and updated in February 2021.