Why what you've heard about time-out may not be the whole story
It’s not easy to be a parent at any time. But that’s particularly the case when you’re getting confusing messages, and we’re talking about something as important as children’s development.
What you think you know about “time-out” could be wrong, depending on what you’ve read lately, or who you’ve been talking to.
WILL THE REAL TIME-OUT (AND TIME IN) PLEASE STAND UP
“Time out from positive reinforcement”, as it was first known, was developed in the 1960s. This was the first time parents had been offered an effective but non-punitive way to guide children without using damaging, dangerous or harsh discipline.
These days, do a search for “time-out” and you may see a number of viewpoints, including that time-out should be ditched and replaced by something people are calling “time in”.
Unfortunately, not only is this based on a misunderstanding of both terms, it’s confusing and potentially even harmful in some circumstances. But more on that later.
TOO SUCCESSFUL FOR ITS OWN GOOD…
The concept of time-out has been extensively researched and refined, but reputable sources all agree: time-out is effective if used as part of a loving, close, positive relationship; and it should only be used sparingly and as part of a broad range of positive parenting strategies. If used this way, it’s an effective, non-harmful way to guide children’s behavior and help them learn to regulate their own emotions.
Over the past 30 years, so many studies have proven that time-out works, that it got to the point where, as one article puts it, “the data was so consistent that journals got sick of publishing it”.
Before long, the words “time-out” became part of popular culture. But gradually, the term came to represent something it was never intended to be: a go-to parenting strategy for every child and every situation. Eventually, time-out started to lose its meaning. Worse, it became distorted into something it was never meant to be. Hollywood movies referenced it, parents adopted it en masse without learning important dos and don’t’s, and some people went to extremes, misusing time-out to punish children in unreasonable and harmful ways.
Then in 2014, an article was published in Time magazine with a headline and introduction that gave the impression that time-out was not only “hurting” children; it was supposedly ineffective. The article received widespread coverage, prompting the article’s own authors, Dr Dan Siegel (M.D.) and Dr Tina Payne Bryson (Ph.D.) to issue a clarification a month later. Unfortunately, by that time, the idea that “time-outs are bad” had caught the attention of media and websites around the world looking for attention-getting headlines.
It’s just the latest example of how a modern myth is created. There’s a lot we think we “know”, based on reading information and “common sense” that’s actually not correct. Goldfish don’t have a 3-second memory, we use a lot more than 10% of our brains and you can’t see the Great Wall of China from space, but that hasn’t stopped many people from printing and believing those things over the years. The internet is great for distributing information, but it’s also notorious for publishing and re-publishing misinformation.
SO WHAT ARE SOME MYTHS AND FACTS ABOUT TIME-OUT?
MYTH: “Time-out is about making a child suffer.”
FACT: Time-out is not meant to be a “punishment”. I can’t stress this enough. It’s defined as time away – usually for one to five minutes – from what psychologists refer to as rewarding stimuli, which includes interesting activities and attention from the parent. This gives children an opportunity to regulate their own emotions and to calm down. The parent's role is to create the situation that allows the child to do this.
MYTH: “Time-out should be used every time there’s a problem…and anyone can start doing it.”
FACT: Time-out is a strategy that should only be used:
- As part of a parenting plan with a focus on positive relationship-building;
- For serious behavior, and when all other alternative strategies haven’t worked;
- When a parent or caregiver has been properly instructed on how and when to use it;
- When a child has a clear understanding of the rules of time-out;
- When it’s planned and not used in anger or as a threat;
- When it’s not being used frequently or for long periods; and
- When parents are carefully monitoring the use of time-out and can see that it’s working (which will be clear within a couple of weeks) and that it’s needed less and less.
(Within the Triple P – Positive Parenting Program, time-out is not taught to parents without all of the above also being explained and demonstrated.)
MYTH: “Time-out makes children bury their emotions.”
FACT: Time-out is used to teach children to deal with strong emotions in appropriate ways. It’s not used in situations where the child is anxious or upset about something that’s happened to them, such as an accident or being bullied. In these situations, it’s important to listen to the child, acknowledge their emotions, respond to their concerns, and help them to cope and problem-solve. However, when a child responds to being denied something they want – not need – by having a tantrum, time-out is a useful strategy to help them self-regulate and manage their frustration in such situations.
(A child needs food, clothing, shelter, a safe and educational environment, and love and affection; they may also “want” more toys, to throw things or hurt others, to stay up late, etc. Parents can help children learn the difference by demonstrating appropriate self-control, and praising appropriate behavior when children don’t get everything they want. If necessary, they can use time-out to deal with tantrums.)
MYTH: “Time-out doesn’t work.”
FACT: Evidence-based parenting programs designed to help parents of children with behavior difficulties almost always use a form of time-out as part of the intervention. There are hundreds of randomized controlled trials that show time-out (used in the way described within Triple P, and as part of a parenting program) is an effective strategy to reduce misbehavior and promote self-regulation. It’s included in evidence-based parenting programs that have met stringent research criteria to be listed on research sites and authorities such as:
- The World Health Organization
- The United Nations/UNICEF
- Blueprints for Prevention
- The Californian Clearing House for Evidence-based Social Work
- Parent Matters, and
- almost all professional associations around the world including:
- The Pediatric Association
- The American Psychological Association
- The Australian Psychological Association; and in Australian Government (Department of Education and Council on Children and the Media) publications and websites (such as raisingchildren.net.au).
MYTH: “Time-out damages the parent-child relationship.”
FACT: There’s an important principle within child development known as attachment theory (the idea that children’s development is fundamentally underpinned by a secure emotional bond with their main caregiver). Key proponents of attachment theory and related programs recognize the importance of time-out as a strategy for parents to teach children self-regulation and adaptive behavior. For example, Dan Siegel promotes the use of time-out being used in the way that it is taught within Triple P, focusing especially on preparing the child ahead of time, and framing the routine in terms of teaching self-regulation skills, not punishment.
Once time-out is over, the parent focuses on re-engaging their child in an appropriate activity, catching them doing the right thing and praising them for it. So, rather than seeing time-out as a threat to the closeness of the parent-child relationship, most parents who learn to do time-out properly will see a big improvement in their child's behavior. Their child will become calmer, and parents will also remain calmer. Again, parents must be taught these strategies carefully so that they’re used correctly. Time-out works, and isn’t harmful, but only when it’s done properly.
Triple P incorporates a lot of things that promote a secure attachment relationship between parents and children. These include, to mention just a few, strategies such as:
- spending quality time
- showing affection
- tuning into cues
- responding to a child’s needs for attention and support, and
- teaching self-regulation skills.
Parents are also able to examine their own ideas about child behavior and to manage their own emotions and behaviors during interactions with their children and family.
LET’S TALK MORE ABOUT SO-CALLED “TIME IN”…
If you do a search for yourself, you’ll see that within the past few years, dozens of articles have popped up online about how “time-out should be replaced with time in”. The idea is that, instead of using time-out, parents should sit with a child who’s having a tantrum or acting aggressively by sitting with them, validating their feelings, reassuring and comforting them. Once the child is calm, the parent then talks to them about their behavior. This sounds very reasonable in theory, but there are several reasons why this approach is not effective for most parents, especially as a response to serious behavior:
- It’s an accidental reward. It’s a good idea to acknowledge a child’s feelings when they’re upset, sad or anxious. But if parents are sitting, talking, soothing, hugging, comforting a child who’s just thrown something, bitten or hit someone, or deliberately thrown a tantrum to get what they want, not only does it prolong the problem behavior at the time, it also provides the child (and any siblings who may be observing) with an incentive to repeat or escalate behavior. As a result, tantrums and other serious behavior can actually become worse.
- It’s not practical. During busy periods of the day and when parents are caring for other children, it’s not always possible or realistic for a parent to sit with one child for a long period of time until they’re calm. As a result, parents can feel like they’re failing for not being able to meet this unrealistic benchmark. They may also wonder why their own children don’t magically respond the same way as the children do in some of the very idealized internet articles out there!
- It’s not based on children learning to regulate their own emotions. It’s important that parents give children the chance to learn how to deal with and manage their own negative emotions. It’s okay to give kids examples and instructions, when they’re calm, about how to express emotions in an appropriate way. But a child who is taught they’re incapable of calming down except with constant hugs and reassurance can easily set up a reliance on the parent or another adult for emotional regulation.
- It places some parents and children at risk. Although some parents may be able to stay calm while trying to calm their child, many parents struggle to implement this strategy effectively, particularly if the child is being aggressive towards them. Indeed, research shows this can be a risk factor for parent escalation and in some cases physical aggression or abuse.
The bottom line is this: people can decry time-out and tell parents that all they need to do is provide endless reassurance. But in the real world, parents need practical, effective ways of dealing with children’s disruptive and difficult behavior that will enable the child to calm down, and help prevent the situation from escalating. They need more than just theoretical solutions, or ones that work fine as long as your child doesn’t really have anything other than the very mildest of behavior issues.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE “OTHER” TIME IN?
Time-out is only going to work where it contrasts with what happens most of the time. And that’s what, within Triple P, and the many similar positive parenting programs that have since been developed, we call “time-in”. Time-in is time spent within a world of encouragement and positive attention, where there are plenty of interesting and appropriate things for the child to do. This means that when a child goes into time-out there’s a contrast. There’s never a suggestion that the parent doesn’t love the child, that the parent is not accessible or available. The child knows when they’re doing something that is appropriate, that behavior will be recognized and encouraged.
When children are used to an environment like that, and then they’re moved to time-out (for a very short period of time) for behavior that’s not acceptable — as a last resort — they rapidly learn that this is temporary. It’s transitional. And when they calm down it’s over with. There’s no holding on to negative feelings, blame or guilt trips. There’s no continuing upset. Once time-out is over, the parent is focused on re-engaging the child in an appropriate activity and “catching” them doing the right thing. The child is learning that if there’s behavior that’s leading to problems for both the child and the rest of the family, there’ll be a consequence that short-circuits it, and this happens calmly, without yelling or threats. And then things will quickly get back to a state of normal everyday interaction in the family.
So rather than time-out being a threat to attachment or the closeness of the parent- child relationship, most parents who learn to do time-out properly will experience a significant improvement in their relationship.
“BUT YOU’RE JUST TRYING TO CONTROL CHILDREN”
Anyone who thinks the aim of parenting is to make children into obedient little robots has completely missed the point. Of course we want to encourage children to be independent, express their emotions and think for themselves. But learning to follow instructions and rules, at least some of the time, is also an essential skill for children to learn if they’re going to be able to function in society.
Fashions and fads come and go in parenting, it’s true. But the research on time-out hasn’t been put together overnight, and those who claim it’s based on a simple behaviorist view of parenting are mistaken. High quality evidence-based parenting programs draw on a number of theoretical approaches and developmental research, risks and protective factors, cognitive social learning theory, public health and community psychology. (Actually, one of the long-stated aims of Triple P to get parents to use fewer coercive discipline strategies by improving their own parenting abilities and relationship with their child.)
Speaking just about Triple P, it involves a whole range of principles, strategies, methods and specialist variations, all of which have been proven to work. It’s the result of over 35 years of ongoing research by many internationally respected experts in child development. The beauty of the scientific method is that well-researched and evidence-based tweaks, if needed, are discussed in the proper environment and incorporated as needed.
While it’s sad that time-out doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody, that doesn’t mean it’s harmful or doesn’t work. It’s important that we as a society and as individuals don’t get caught up in the kind of ideological arguments that are too common today. The role of our program and others like it remains the same: to deliver the best possible evidence-based parenting help and support to as many people as possible. And that helps parents to get on with theirs.