The timeout technique, used by parents for decades, exploded into the public domain in the early 2000s thanks to TV’s “Supernanny” Jo Frost, who rebranded it as the “naughty step” technique. Supernanny may have left our screens, but many parents still rely on timeouts when their kids misbehave. A growing number of experts, though, advise against it.
Timeout involves placing your child in a designated quiet, isolated, safe place in the home immediately after they’ve ignored a warning to stop misbehaving. After a brief explanation for why they’re in timeout, the child sits there long enough to calm down and think about what they’ve done wrong. Frost recommends this for kids between 2 and 6 years old, and suggests keeping them there for one minute per year of age, and ignoring them while they are there. If they leave the spot before time is up, you must take them back, as often as necessary — while refusing to engage in any conversation. When the timer goes off, you reiterate why they were there, tell them to apologize for their behavior and give them hugs and kisses so they know you still love them.
Despite giving birth twice during the Supernanny era, I never used timeouts with my older kids, and I don’t plan to rely on it when the baby I’ll give birth to in a few weeks is old enough to go into full-blown tantrum mode. It’s not that I think I know any better — I just don’t get it. If it works so well, why do other parents need to use it several times a week? As far as I’ve seen, it has varying, unpredictable results. I remember my niece happily taking herself to the naughty step, then refusing to leave when her time was up; another friend told me that when she retrieved her son from the step she discovered that during his four minutes of “thinking” time, he’d created art — on the wall by the staircase with a rogue crayon.
Parenting experts have criticized the timeout technique in recent years, saying that it might neglect a child’s emotional needs. Most experts agree that punishment is harmful to a child’s emotional development and that isolation — the defining quality of the timeout technique — is a form of punishment.
“Children experience feelings of isolation and abandonment when placed in time out,” says Bonnie Compton, a child and adolescent therapist, parenting coach and author of “Mothering With Courage,” in an email. “There is loss of contact, which can also be interpreted as loss of a parent’s love, especially for younger children. Kids who are sent to their room often believe their isolation is a result of being bad enough that parents do not want to be around them.”
This can be particularly risky for kids who have a predisposition to anxiety, Compton adds. The isolation may increase their fears, and the more anxious they become, the more likely they may be to exhibit behavioral outbursts, such as destroying their toys or room during a timeout.
“Healthy humans are social creatures,” psychiatrist Edward V. Haas says in an email. “We rely on others for physical survival and emotional support, which means when we are involuntarily cut off from other human beings, psychologically painful feelings of loneliness and anxiety arise. In children, this is amplified by their belief that they are helpless in the world without their parents to help them. The threat of separation from those who protect them can cause severe anxiety and psychological discomfort in a child.”
This means regular reliance on the timeout technique can have long-lasting negative effects. “A child who experiences frequent threats of (or actual) abandonment by their parent will build a model of the world in which they have no firm anchor of support,” Haas writes. “They have learned they must conform to the views of others in order to survive, and are thus more likely to grow up feeling insecure and powerless.”
There’s also the argument that timeout simply doesn’t work. “Kids don’t have the advanced cognitive skills to think abstractly,” Nadia Sabri, a board-certified pediatrician, says in an email. “Emotional modulation and regulation occurs with development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which doesn’t fully develop until adolescence.” This means putting a child by themselves in a timeout situation and telling them to think about what they’ve done is generally a waste of time. “If you ask the child why they are in timeout, they usually say ‘I don’t know,’” Sabri writes.
So what’s the alternative? Many parenting experts advocate “time-in” as a healthier behavior strategy. It involves sitting with your children when they misbehave, talking them through their emotions and helping them to learn to harness those big feelings they don’t yet understand.
To help a child grasp why their behavior is not appropriate, Sabri recommends going to the child’s eye level, speaking in a calm, soft voice, explaining what the child is doing and why they shouldn’t do it, and suggesting an acceptable alternative.
There may still a place for a variation on the timeout technique in parenting, though. Some kids can be overstimulated or overwhelmed by the emotions of those around them, which may lead them to respond in ways that can be misconstrued as defiance or misbehavior. However, if timeouts are used as a way to give the child a calmer environment, Haas emphasizes that the parent should remain with the child at all times, and maintain a calm, loving demeanor to help them calm down.
“It can be helpful to remove the child from the party or movie or play or whatever is causing the problem and go to a place which is more quiet and calm,” Haas writes. “Hopefully, the parent will be open to hearing the child’s point of view about the situation and open to trying to understand why they did what they did.
"The parent can then calmly explain why they thought the child’s behavior was inappropriate or dangerous. This is an opportunity for both the parent and child to better understand each other and learn from each other — an opportunity which is missed if the parent chooses to isolate themselves from their child.”
Claire Gillespie is a writer living in Glasgow, Scotland. Find her online at clairegillespie.contently.com.