Father with kids

Is there such thing as a healthy time-out for kids?

When disciplining children, many parents use time-out, choosing it as a “better” alternative to smacking. However, there is evidence that this parenting tool is significantly more complex than parents think and some experts even consider it a harmful practice.

A controversial history

Time-out has been used in behavioural parenting programs since the 1960s. Shockingly, most people wouldn’t know that the technique was actually developed as a method of training laboratory animals and was later used to manage children’s behaviour. Yes, that’s right: it was developed to control animals and today is recommended by some experts as an approach parents can use to control their kids.

There are basically two schools of thought on the technique. Some researchers contend that time-out is an effective way to manage children’s behaviour if it is carried out correctly. Other researchers highlight that this technique focuses on controlling a child’s behaviour through the withdrawal of love, which can have negative consequences. Given these conflicting recommendations, it’s important to look at time-out more critically by weighing up the research evidence on the conditions under which time-out is meant to work, its effectiveness and, most importantly, the implications for parents and children.

The pro time-out argument

Experts who claim time-out is an effective method for parents caution that instigating time-out is a complex procedure. Complex? you ask. Isn’t it as simple as putting a child in another room or corner to let them “cool off” or “think about their behaviour”? If you believe that’s all there is to time-out, think again.

Advocates of this method claim that, to be effective, time-out needs to be used with a range of other parenting strategies and time-out itself should involve a number of steps. A study by Morawska and Saunders, published in 2011, identified eight factors that need to be considered when implementing time-out. These included: warning the child; giving a reason to the child; deciding how it was to be carried out, where the child would be and for how long; evaluating the time-out area (to ensure it is less stimulating than the time-in area); determining the schedule; and, finally, monitoring the child and deciding when the child will be “released”. Further, they emphasised that “time-out needs to take place within the context of a warm, caring, supportive environment”.

Unless parents are there to uncover and lovingly guide and support children to develop problem-solving skills, parents cannot know what is going through their child’s mind while they have been sent away into time-out.

Now, let’s be realistic. If the successful use of time-out requires numerous steps in a warm, caring and supportive environment, it’s hard to imagine that parents are going to be able to navigate this complexity successfully when trying to manage out-of-control behaviour (hitting, screaming, biting or throwing a tantrum) and, on top of that, could possibly be explosive themselves. It seems, then, that it’s unlikely that parents will be able to use the time-out technique successfully as prescribed.

According to the experts, managing time-out effectively requires training. In answer to concerns that time-out was being used without proper instruction, a more recent study carried out by a team of researchers (Drayton et al 2014) evaluated the guidance on the internet about the practice of using time-out that’s available as a free source of advice for parents. The researchers concluded that none of the pages was accurate and found instead they were incomplete, inaccurate and inconsistent, and they cautioned against paediatricians recommending parents use the internet as a source of information for time-out.

So, in terms of using time-out as an effective parenting technique, where are we? First, the process is complex and requires numerous steps. Second, it should be carried out in a calm and loving way at times that are likely to be volatile. Third, parents need training from time-out experts. And, finally, advice on the internet is flawed. This doesn’t inspire confidence in using the method successfully and this conclusion is further supported when we consider what the anti time-out researchers have to say.

The anti time-out argument

Researchers concerned with time-out as a legitimate parenting practice highlight that it focuses on controlling a child’s behaviour through the withdrawal of love. If a child misbehaves, he or she gets sent away … lovingly? Probably more likely to be dragged away kicking and screaming. It seems unlikely that this process will educate or motivate children to learn why and how to behave appropriately, because it focuses children’s attention on getting out of time-out now and ensuring that they avoid future banishment.

Then there are the complications of carrying out the process. To explore the issue more fully, let’s use the common parenting challenge of sibling rivalry, where one child hits another child to get their way. In this case, a parent might say something like: “You’ve hit your sister again. Go into time-out.” First, the parent has to get the child into time-out and then get the child to stay there for the required amount of time and, second, to learn new behaviour.

More often than not, parents complain that even getting a child into time-out, let alone keeping them there for any length of time, is as stressful as — if not more stressful than — the reason for time-out in the first place. When, best case scenario, the parent has avoided the time-consuming and stressful repeated attempts of returning the child and has managed to calmly and lovingly keep the child in time-out for the required period of time, there is still the matter of helping the child to “learn from time-out”.

Experts who caution against using time-out are concerned that a child can conclude, “I’m ‘bad’ and I can only be near Mum and Dad when I’m ‘good’.”

One of the aims of time-out is to give the child time to “think about their behaviour”. At this point, we need to consider whether the child is motivated to reflect on their behaviour on their own and to come up with better solutions to resolve their issues — in this case, to replace hitting their sister with a better strategy. Further, we need to bear in mind that time-out is recommended for young children, so we have to question whether young children are developmentally capable of reflecting on their own behaviour and complex social interactions with siblings.

Hence, it is not unreasonable to postulate that, while in time-out, this boy may spend more time resenting his sister for getting him into trouble, being angry at his parent for favouring his sister again and sending him away, working on ways he might get his sister or parents back for hurting him, or even thinking about ways not to get caught next time. The negative possibilities are endless.

Have you ever ruminated over these kinds of ideas when things have not gone your way and you feel hurt? Unless parents are there to uncover and lovingly guide and support children to develop problem-solving skills, parents cannot know what is going through their child’s mind while they have been sent away into time-out. Moving forward, eventually time-out ends. What then?

When the child returns, what has he learned from the experience of being sent away to “think”? Is he mature enough to see the error of his ways? While he may not hit his sister again, what is his motivation? There is a good chance the focus is on abstaining from the behaviour to avoid being banished to time-out rather than learning not to hit his sister because it’s not kind to hit another person.

Time-out, which is a punishment, forces the child to focus their attention on not being sent away and avoid the fear of feeling unwanted and possibly even unloved. Remember, actions speak louder than words. Your child can’t see or feel your well-meaning intentions or your love when they’re banished to time-out by you. Instead, your child simply experiences you withdrawing. Being sent away is frightening for a child, as I found out many years ago when I tried it just one time with our son, which is what prompted me to take a close look at the research on the topic.

Experts who caution against using time-out are concerned that a child can conclude, “I’m ‘bad’ and I can only be near Mum and Dad when I’m ‘good’.” Brain science also highlights that the anxiety and stress from being sent away cause a child to go into “fight, flight or freeze” mode. In this stressful state of survival, children can’t learn. Children need to be in a state of calm for the part of the brain in which learning takes place to be working optimally, and this means switching off their fight, flight or freeze response!

Healthy time-out?

It’s important to highlight that the time-out described in this article is where the parent takes the child out of the activity against the child’s will. The child could be sent to another room or to another part of the same room — but it’s not by choice. This forced exclusion is different from healthy time-out. Sometimes children and adults simply need time to themselves and so they choose to take time to be by themselves. This is healthy time-out. Sometimes, all family members can take some time-out from the day by sitting together reading quietly, listening to relaxing music or just having a casual chat.

With time-in, parents stay with their child, help her to calm down, and then speak with and explain to their child why her behaviour (hitting, stealing, screaming) is not acceptable.

I give myself a healthy time-out when I need to de-stress so I don’t say or do things I’ll regret later. I remember, years ago, I said to Cameron, our son, “I’m giving myself a time-out to calm down” and he said, “Can I come too?” I responded, “OK, but only if you are quiet as I’m going to be quiet for a while.” I lay down on the bed, closed my eyes and began focusing on my breath and he lay next to me. Within a minute or two, his little face was within inches of mine and he asked, “Mummy, have you had enough quiet time yet?” It made me chuckle and kiss his little face — I had just enough time to forget what I was stressed about and to remember how wonderful it is to be a parent! We both got up and played a game. This is healthy time-out.

However, this still leaves the question: If I don’t use time-out when parenting challenges arise, what are the alternatives?

What parents can do instead

Time-out is a discipline- and punishment-based model. An alternative is time-in, which can be used as part of an educational or life-skills-based model. With time-in, parents stay with their child, help her to calm down, and then speak with and explain to their child why her behaviour (hitting, stealing, screaming) is not acceptable. In this way, over time, your child will develop good values so they can make healthy and safe future decisions and become co-operative members of your family and eventually good social citizens.

Most things we learn in life, whether as a child or as an adult, take time. In the same way, the time-in technique may take more than one attempt to stop the negative behaviour your child is engaging in and to support them to learn and, most importantly, embody a better way to be in the world. In the short term, time-out may stop a behaviour more quickly than time-in, but not always, as you have probably experienced if you have tried the technique. Developing new behaviours with time-in may be more time-consuming in the short term; however, in the long term, the child is more likely to change their behaviour through moral development rather than out of fear of repercussions.

Time-in is a win-win approach to parenting, as it’s good for parents and good for children. Time-in reduces stress for both parent and child because, when the parent stays calm and responsive, this helps the child to be calm. Sending a child into time-out, as well as keeping them there, can be very stressful. Time-in has the added benefit that parents are right there to help the child make better decisions and overcome the challenges that started the problem in the first place. When children are in time-out, parents don’t know what children are thinking about.

Time-in enables parents to help their children learn to be safe as well as to support them to gain the knowledge and skills they need to navigate life successfully, without the need to discipline or punish them. Time-in can embody the benefits of both a relationship-based model and behavioural model of child development and parenting.

Keeping children close, especially in difficult situations, supports a positive parent–child relationship. Time-out is likely to be seen by the child as conditional parenting and says loudly and clearly to a child, “You are only loved when you’re good. I don’t want you near me when you’re bad.” Time-in, on the other hand, shows your children in actions, “I love you no matter what. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere and I’ll help you through this.”

Feel the difference when you experience your parental role as a disciplinarian as opposed to one of helping your children develop all the skills they need to navigate the world successfully. Time-in is a win-win.

Rosina McAlpine

Rosina McAlpine

Dr Rosina McAlpine is a parenting expert, author, speaker and award-winning educator. Her practical, research-based Win Win Parenting programs support parents to raise happy, healthy and capable children using an approach based on empathy and life skills education rather than rewards, discipline or punishment. Workplace parenting programs are available at winwinparenting.com and drrosina.com.

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