Time-out certainly sounds like a brilliant fix: A child spends a few minutes sitting alone, and emerges calm and cooperative. Parents often admit that it simply doesn’t work—because their kid fights going to the time-out, cries and calls out instead of sitting quietly, or gets even more worked up afterward. However, according to a recent study from Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, 85 percent of parents who use the strategy make mistakes that can reduce its success, such as giving too many warnings or talking to their kids or letting them play with toys during time-outs. If you’re ready to become a time-out dropout, consider when they will be most effective and how you can adopt other tactics to quell your kid’s antics.
Time-outs became popularized by reality shows like Supernanny, but the technique was first developed in the 1960s as a more humane alternative to harsh punishments that were common then. Before Arthur Staats, Ph.D., now retired from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, came up with the concept, teachers and principals routinely smacked children with rulers, and parents spanked or whipped their kids with switches. Now—at a time when a video of a kid being paddled at school goes viral because it’s so shocking—most parents are embracing a more gentle approach. After all, decades of research have shown that children who have been routinely spanked are more likely to be aggressive when they get older, as well as to suffer from anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
But a time-out isn’t benign either. “When your child has a tantrum or a meltdown, she may be overwhelmed and unable to control her emotions,” says Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine and author of No-Drama Discipline. Rather than immediately sending her to a chair in the corner, it’s important to let her know that you empathize with how she’s feeling. Says Dr. Siegel, “Your child actually needs you the most when she’s at her worst.” Most experts believe time-outs can be effective, as long as they are used correctly and in the right situations, especially for kids who are over age 3. “They should be reserved for particular offenses that could cause injury to your child or someone else,” says Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician and author of Toddler 411.
1. Using Them Too Often
Despite popular belief, time-outs aren’t supposed to be about getting children to think through their misdeeds. “A time-out is primarily a ‘Let’s stop things from getting worse’ strategy,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a Parents advisor and author of Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids. Dr. Kennedy-Moore explains, “In the history of the universe, no children have ever gone to their rooms to ‘Think about what you did!’ They’re thinking about their parents’ meanness. The learning starts after the time-out, when you can say, ‘Okay, let’s try again.’ ”
2. Giving Kids Attention During Time-Out
A time-out is essentially a mild consequence. Young kids crave attention, and even negative attention may suffice, explains Dr. Kennedy-Moore. In fact, “time-out” was originally short for “time-out from positive reinforcement,” because Dr. Staats felt that paying attention to a child’s misbehavior can encourage him to misbehave more. “To me, time-out isn’t a naughty chair or a corner of the room,” says Dr. Brown. “It’s simply the lack of parental attention for a short period of time that lets a child see that his behavior led to losing attention instead of getting it.”
3. Using Them for the Wrong Reason
Research from Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, has found that time-outs work best on young children who are oppositional and defiant by hitting or intentionally doing the opposite of what you ask, but only if you first try milder responses most of the time. When a child is put in a time-out for different types of problems or if it’s used too often for oppositional defiance, his behavior may get worse, says study coauthor Robert E. Larzelere, Ph.D., professor of family science. Little kids who are just whining about the mashed potatoes or negotiating for more iPad time respond better to other approaches. In those types of situations, consider these tactics instead:
If you ask parents how they use time-outs, you’ll probably hear a wide variety of answers, ranging from having a naughty chair to keeping kids in their room. Since Dr. Staats first wrote about time-outs, researchers have changed them for the better, so they’re both gentler and more effective.