A flurry of articles and parenting experts in recent years have questioned the effectiveness, usefulness and even the ethics of using timeouts as a way to modify behavior in young children. But there is ample scientific research to show that, when used correctly and in the context of a strong parent-child relationship, they can be safe and effective. As clinical psychologists focused on childhood behavior and family relationships, we are alarmed at some of the misinformation we have seen about timeouts.
Most everyone can agree that parenting is hard. Research has shown that children don’t listen to as many as 40 percent of parents’ commands. Moms and dads are often at a loss over what to do in these situations, so they try a combination of cajoling, distracting, reissuing commands (often multiple times) and threatening. For most children, these approaches work well enough, even if they leave parents exhausted at times.
When other approaches aren’t getting the job done, timeout can be a useful tool. Timeout first appeared in research journals in the late 1960s and has been recommended by psychologists ever since. The term timeout is short for timeout from positive reinforcement, and it’s intended to be a “break” from fun. It’s not intended to be particularly punitive and is a safe, highly effective consequence for disobedience and aggression.
Doing a timeout correctly is challenging. Children are masters at finding loopholes that will free them from timeout. When parents don’t carefully plan for these scenarios, the technique fizzles, leading them to conclude that timeout doesn’t work. Experts and professionals have largely failed to convey to parents how to avoid many of those common timeout pitfalls. For example, many parents lecture children while they are in timeout (reinforcing negative behavior by giving the child attention) or they make timeout too long (longer than 5 minutes is not any more effective than a shorter stint).
And many are not aware that the technique is most effective when the child has to comply with the parent’s original request after the timeout is over. If he doesn’t do what the parent asks — such as cleaning up his toys — he returns for another brief timeout. When he displays the desired behavior, his parents should praise him, because it’s just as essential to teach children what to do as it is what not to do. Leaving out this important follow-through has sown confusion among parents and led some child-development professionals to deem timeout ineffective.
Although timeouts need to be tailored to the individual child and the situation, there are several crucial steps a parent can take to make sure they are using the technique correctly, for best results:
- Decide exactly what warrants a timeout. This has to be specific. Many parents are not clear on what leads to a timeout and use it based on their own level of frustration, rather than the child’s behavior. So identifying “hitting your sister” is better than the more general “being aggressive.” Use it for just one negative behavior until you have it down, then slowly start incorporating it for other things. Many parents overuse it, making it less effective.
- Don’t use it for what psychologists call “escape behaviors,” where the child is trying to avoid something, such as getting dressed in the morning. A timeout in such situations gives the child what he wants, which is to delay doing something.
- Decide beforehand where the timeout will be and for how long. The location should be a boring place, such as a chair in the dining room where a parent can supervise yet not be in the same room and thus risk giving the child attention. Don’t send the child to his room, where there are too many opportunities for fun. Timeout works because it’s boring.
- Have a plan for when (not if) your child refuses to go to timeout or leaves timeout early. You need a moderate backup consequence that is more of a pain for your child than going to timeout for three minutes. For example, you might say, “If you don’t sit in timeout, you will lose bike privileges until tomorrow." Children will often tell parents they don’t care and still refuse to go to timeout. This is okay. Just follow through on the privilege removal (the child doesn’t need to go to timeout this time) and if it’s a good privilege, your child will be much more likely to comply with timeout next time.
The effectiveness of timeouts has been proven through decades of research, including work in the field of “behavioral parent training,” in which professionals teach parents a set of effective techniques. These techniques — a combination of reinforcement of appropriate behavior, effective commands, timeouts and other consequences — are usually used with children who exhibit moderate to severe disruptive behavior, but they have also been shown to be effective with children demonstrating less severe behavior.
And a number of smaller, focused studies have specifically tested timeout and found it to be effective at reducing misbehavior in young children, typically ages 2 to 6. It also has been shown to be a more effective way of modifying behavior than physical discipline techniques, such as spanking. In fact, using timeouts as a tool to help parents set limits reduces the incidence of physical abuse by caregivers. And any alternative to physical discipline is a good thing. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both support timeout as a best practice for behavior management in young children.
Critics of the technique say it ignores children’s feelings, reduces their self-esteem and may even be traumatizing, but there is no scientific evidence for any of this. Instead, studies have found that timeout in conjunction with parent-child relationship skills actually decreases trauma symptoms in children. It can teach children to self-soothe, reduce problem behaviors and help children display greater self-control.
Timeout is based on decades of scientific study among child psychologists, and when used with positive interventions to encourage “good” behavior, has proven effective in hundreds of carefully controlled studies. It is safe, ethical and has been used in millions of homes, schools and community settings. That’s because it works. Purporting it doesn’t only encourages ill-advised and scientifically unsupported approaches, leaving parents without an incredibly useful tool for encouraging good behavior. We can do better than that.
Camilo Ortiz is an associate professor of psychology and the co-director of the doctoral training program in clinical psychology at Long Island University’s C.W. Post Campus.
Clinical psychologists Mitch Prinstein, Ann Marie Albano, Tim Cavell, Regine Galanti, Stephen Hupp, Daniel Hoffman and Hilary Vidair contributed to this piece.