Ah, the timeout: the go-to form discipline for countless parents. When your young children are misbehaving, timeouts allow you to show your kids that their actions are inappropriate while at the same time giving yourself a short reprieve from the intense emotions of the moment.
But are timeouts actually effective? And can timeouts have negative consequences? Some experts say they are ineffective and even harmful, while some say they work—if done properly. Read on to find out more.
Negative consequences of timeouts
In recent years, critics have asserted that timeouts can leave kids feeling isolated and abandoned during an emotional crisis. This can lead to power struggles rather than your child learning to control his emotions. Some also feel that timeouts can also cause children to feel worse about himself and damage the parent-child relationship.
More discipline problems
According to some research, timeouts can lead to even more discipline problems. One study from the National Institute of Mental Health found that timeouts can help get toddlers to cooperate, but only temporarily. Children who were disciplined with timeouts misbehaved more than the children who weren’t given timeouts, even when their mothers talked with them afterward.
Authors Michael Chapman and Carolyn Zahn-Wexler concluded that the children were reacting to the what they perceived as a “love withdrawal” by misbehaving more. This is in line with other studies of “love withdrawal” as a punishment technique, which have found that kids who are punished in this way tend to misbehave more, be less emotionally healthy, and have less-developed morality.
Feelings of rejection
In a Time magazine article, Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., who wrote the best-selling The Whole-Brain Child with Dr. Siegel, noted that timeouts isolate kids and show them that when they made a mistake they will be forced to be alone. Young children tend to experience this as rejection, and this is damaging because children have a deep need for connection.
Children often experience intense emotions and don’t have the capacity to deal with them yet; this can result in disrespectful or uncooperative behavior. This inappropriate behavior can be seen as a “request” to help them calm down and a desire for connection. When you isolate a child in this state, they experience emotional and mental pain that, in terms of brain activity, is very similar to physical pain.
How to make timeouts effective
Timeouts are not always unsuccessful or detrimental; there has been plenty of research showing they can be effective. Evidence-based parenting programs such as the Triple-P Positive Parenting Program (which has been implemented in 25 countries) have found that timeouts can successfully reduce misbehaviors. Moreover, the American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that “ignoring, removing, or withholding parent attention to decrease the frequency or intensity of undesirable behaviors” is important when parents are “promoting positive child behavior.”
Instead of timeouts, experts recommend “time-ins,” which involve cultivating a loving connection. For instance, parents can sit with the child while talking to and comforting them. Sitting and calming down can be extremely helpful for children; it teaches them how to pause and think about their behavior. And for younger children, this reflection is only successful when done with a parent, not in isolation.
According to Edward Christophersen, a psychologist and pediatrician at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri., and the author of the book Beyond Discipline: Parenting That Lasts a Lifetime, if a child is raised in an environment with lots of time-ins, or loving, positive interactions, a timeout is just a brief suspension of positive reinforcement and the children learn to associate good behavior with time-ins. Therefore, timeouts don’t work very well in environments without much positive reinforcement. If you rarely praise or hug your child, then misbehaving (and then getting a timeout) may be the only way he gets your attention.
Be calm and straightforward
According to John Lutzker, director of the Center for Healthy Development at Georgia State University, the proper way to initiate timeout is to tell the child in a calm and simple manner what the offense was and that he will have a timeout as a result of his behavior. Rather than giving them an evaluation of their behavior, state factually what they did. Plus, when you give them a big emotional speech about what they did and how awful it was, you’re giving them (and the behavior) attention, when the purpose of a timeout is to withhold attention.
Like many parenting techniques, timeouts can be beneficial or harmful; it depends on the environment your child is raised in and how you implement the timeout. What are your thoughts on timeouts? Leave your comments below!
Winner of Best of Boston 2017 by Boston Magazine. Now, imagine a place where children are encouraged to make mistakes, two-year-olds are learning how to play the violin, and teachers are encouraging children to explore the limits of their potential.