Time-outs are a common “discipline” practice used to address negative behavior, with many parents believing it is the best option available to them. But what do time-outs teach a child, and do they help achieve the goals of discipline?
First, let’s remember that discipline is about teaching, not punishing. Discipline strives to gain cooperation from the child in the short term, while also building the child’s internal skills for the long term. Second, let’s define what a time-out is. From a research perspective, a time-out is an intervention that pauses a difficult interaction for a brief period of time (often three to five minutes), is explained to the child beforehand, and is used sparingly and intentionally. Under these conditions, time-outs have been shown to reduce parents losing control of themselves and inflicting physical or emotional pain on their children. So time-outs can help keep kids safe, at least compared to a variety of (abusive or harmful) practices parents may lean on when feeling overwhelmed or desperate.
One big challenge with time-outs is that rarely do parents administer them in the controlled and intentional way that a researcher might use them in a study. Instead, parents frequently deliver time-outs that are impulsive, unclear, and/or lengthy. They often come from a place of anger and are used as a form of punishment. These “punishment” time-outs do not create opportunities for a child to develop their internal skills (e.g. self-regulation), typically lead to feelings of resentment, shame, and/or anger, and may not even produce more cooperation from the child in the moment.
Remember the premise of No Drama Discipline is connect and redirect, meaning that no matter what kind of discipline is used, it’s important to keep a child’s need for connection front and center. Misbehavior often stems from an emotionally overwhelmed child that is expressing a need or emotion. Perhaps the child is tired or hungry. Perhaps the child is being triggered by something in the environment that reminds them of a past trauma. Perhaps the child is three years old and simply does not have the words to express the feeling inside her. The potential reasons go on and on, but they all lead to the same place, which is that in this moment, the child is incapable of self-control and making good decisions. It’s in these moments that the child has the biggest need for connection with a comforting and calming presence.
To promote connection, consider offering the child a “time-in” rather than a time-out. Sit with (or near) the child, offer comfort (verbally and/or non-verbally), and take some time together to calm down. Help the child take a pause, and once things are calm, encourage some reflection time. This kind of “time-in is created in relationship, not in isolation administered as punishment” (Siegel & Bryson, 2014, p.29). And remember, always do your best to ensure you are feeling calm and in control when delivering a time-in. If you’re not, consider giving yourself a “time-out” before engaging with the child.
Until next time,
Richard Doyle, MSW – Family Services Coordinator
Siegel, D. & Bryson, T. (2014). No-Drama Discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind. New York, NY: Bantam Books.