Is it time up for time-out?

What do you do when faced with unacceptable behaviour? While ‘time-out’ has long been touted as an effective disciplinary tool, Dr Melanie Woodfield re-visits the theory behind it.

You may have missed it while making cheese toasties, but a debate has been raging. Some say that time-out is effective and safe. Others say it’s harmful and we should be using ‘time-in’ instead. As a parent, it can be hard to navigate the minefield of information without feeling a sense of guilt or inadequacy when it comes to how you choose to discipline your child. Thankfully, despite the headlines, the experts have been finding a middle ground they agree on.

Time-out is technically time out from positive reinforcement. A reinforcer is anything that increases the likelihood that a behaviour will happen again. If I gave you a dollar every time you stood up, you would probably stand more often. Even more powerful than money (if you’re a child) is attention from a parent or caregiver. Any kind of attention. Eye contact (even glaring), conversation (even being told off), touch – it’s all reinforcing the particular behaviour and making it more likely to happen again.

Let’s look at it another way. If you were given dollar coins every few seconds throughout the day, but every time you stood up I stopped giving you coins, you’d soon stop standing up. Back to parenting, if you give your child regular positive attention throughout the day, but withdraw attention calmly, deliberately and obviously for a short period of time immediately after a particular behaviour, the behaviour will decrease in frequency. This is time-out in a nutshell.

Time-out makes sense and is effective, but has recently come under criticism. Dr Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson's 2014 book No-Drama Discipline fuelled the debate. There were also a few provocative online pieces, eg ‘Time-Outs’ Are Hurting Your Child (Time, September 2014), where authors highlighted selected neuroscience research to suggest that removing your attention briefly from your child is harmful. That instead, a stressed-out child needs their parent.

Storm in a sippy cup
In the interests of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, putting the issue of time-out to one side for a moment, this book (and others by Dr Dan Siegel and colleagues) is widely used within the psychology community and worth a read. It’s important to understand your child’s neurological development, as this can help make sense of everyday interactions with your child.

But a storm of controversy erupted in 2014. Clinicians were confused as to whether they should endorse time-out or not, and parents struggled to make sense of the professional debate. The American Psychological Association responded with a forcefully worded press release: “We are writing to express strong concern with the article by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson … which described time-out as 'ineffective' and seemingly equated this practice with 'physical abuse'. Based on their selective review of recent neuroscientific findings, these authors advocate rejecting the use of time-out in favour of an alternative strategy, 'time-in'. Unfortunately, none of the authors’ conclusions regarding the rejection of time-out or the use of time-in are directly supported by research evidence, nor do they reflect a clear understanding of correctly implemented time-out”. Phew!

The crux of the issue seemed to be what was meant by “correctly implemented time-out”. Helpfully, Dan Siegel wrote a response to some of the critiques he had received. He concluded: “The 'appropriate' use of time-out calls for brief, infrequent, previously explained breaks from an interaction used as part of a thought-out parenting strategy that is followed by positive feedback and connection with a parent. This seems not only reasonable, but it is an overall approach supported by the research as helpful for many children. However, in actual practice, it seems that many parents instead use 'inappropriate' or 'punitive' time-out as the popular go-to reaction, which unfortunately often appears to be frequent, prolonged and coupled with parental anger and frustration. Sadly, as a culture, we use the same term 'time-out' for each of these appropriate and inappropriate applications”.

There we have it – the middle ground. It seems that both sides would agree that time-out, when used carefully and occasionally, is not harming kids. In fact, it’s very effective.

Joining the dots
Effective discipline is all about learning. Children aren’t able to learn efficiently when they’re very distressed. Connecting with your child helps them to regulate their emotions and be in a better place to talk through and learn from the situation. After a time-out, look to connect as soon as possible with your child. One way is to actively search for something you can praise, ideally the ‘positive opposite’ of the behaviour they were sent to time-out for. So, if they went to time-out for not listening, spot an instance of good listening as soon as possible, and praise it in detail.

Connection also enhances time-out’s effectiveness – if a child doesn’t get lots of positive interaction with you each day, time-out will be less effective anyway. If your relationship with your child is in dire straits, it’s recommended that you first focus on re-building the warmth and connection within your relationship (one way is to spend at least a few minutes of dedicated positive time together each day in child-led play). Time-out makes withdrawals from a child’s emotional bank, and you don’t want to be in overdraft. Ideally, there’s a huge amount of positive attention that’s been deposited over time to draw from.

The discipline toolkit
Time-out has been rigorously and thoroughly studied and repeatedly shown to be effective when used appropriately as part of a wider group of strategies, and kept in balance. It’s one tool in your parenting toolkit, and not your go-to all-in-one tool.

In a typical toolkit, within hand’s reach are the tools used all the time. In parenting, these are the things you do LOTS of. Like noticing when kids are doing good and useful things, and giving them detailed praise. Like reflecting their feelings (“I’m hearing that you’re angry”) and validating them (“It makes sense that you feel that way – I would too”). Like spending time with your child, showing interest in what interests them.

The tools we use less often are also in the kit. Tools like distraction techniques and logical and natural consequences. Also planned ignoring – deliberately ignoring behaviour that’s not destructive or dangerous (such as whining, moaning and groaning), and then swooping back in when you see or hear your child doing the opposite of those things (“I love how you used your big boy voice – now I’m happy to talk more about what you’d like”).

In a separate compartment of the toolkit are techniques like time-out. They hardly get used, and only in some circumstances. As we've seen, experts agree that occasional, carefully considered time-outs, followed by re-connection, can be effective and safe.

I’m a card-carrying advocate of cuddles. When a child is distressed, they need a calm parent to help them regulate their emotions. Being physically present and accepting of your child’s big emotions (like anger or sadness) is hugely important. You want to send your child the message that if they’re upset, you are available to them. BUT there are some situations when I would use time-out, eg when a child is calmly defiant (“No, I won’t do that and you can’t make me!”), where you’ve validated till the cows come home, used several other strategies, and they’re still defiant. Or a situation where a young child’s behaviour has escalated to the point where it is detrimentally impacting on the family’s wellbeing. Or a situation where a parent fears they will harm their child and they desperately need a safe and effective solution.

Time-out tips
● Try not to say much when taking your child to time-out. Especially avoid anything that criticises your child’s character. Try something neutral, said calmly, like “you didn’t do what I told you to do, so now you need to sit on the time-out chair”. If necessary, calmly and silently (easier said than done!) return your child gently to the chair if they leave it before they are supposed to.
● The length of time a child should be in time-out is often debated. Many say one minute for every year of age, so a six-year-old child would be in time-out for six minutes. Studies have shown that three minutes is the shortest effective period of time. And long periods (10mins plus) aren’t recommended for young children.
● Make yourself available for connection after your child has been in time-out. Don’t be afraid to offer a hug or a back rub. Then your task is to watch your child like a hawk for glimpses of a behaviour that is the positive opposite of what they did, and then praise it. Things like “I love how you were gentle with your brother”, “Thank you for doing that for me when I asked”, “You remembered to pick up after you finished – great stuff”. Likewise, time-out is not advised if your child is very distressed and needs a cuddle (and a consequence later) instead.
● Always be sure to separate the child from the behaviour. Avoid saying things like “I can’t be with you right now” or “You can’t be with me”. This can accidentally imply that there’s something inherently broken, damaged or inadequate about your child. Instead, try saying “doing A, B or C is not okay. If you do that again, you need to go to time-out”. Make sure to give your child the message, both verbally and through your actions, that big feelings like anger, sadness, and frustration are okay. That they’re still loved when they’re angry or distressed. And, alongside that, that aggression to people or property is not okay.
● Time-out is not recommended for children under about two years of age – kids tend to lack the awareness that their parent will return, and this can be very distressing. Essentially, in terms of their cognitive development, the concept of time-out is a stretch for infants and toddlers.

Hopefully it’s reassuring to know that, while there are still strong feelings in some camps about time-out, at least the experts agree. Though you’re probably less interested in the theoretical debate, and more interested in what to do when Junior’s having a meltdown. In a nutshell, trust your intuition. Do what feels right, what’s practical and safe. If you need to use time-out occasionally, be comforted that you’re not harming your child when it is used appropriately. Alternatively, if it feels right to hug instead, do that! 

Dr Melanie Woodfield is a child and adolescent clinical psychologist in Auckland, a wife, and a mother of two. She works for a District Health Board child and adolescent mental health service as a Practice Supervisor for psychology, and also enjoys teaching and writing about psychology-related things.


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