How’s this for familiar? Your child won’t stop screaming in the park or at home, and you’re tempted to give him a solo cooling off period, otherwise known as a time-out, a classic but controversial form of discipline.
A decade ago, 70 percent of parents used time outs for children aged 19 to 35 months, according to a survey published in Pediatrics in 2004. But in recent years the practice — dubbed a “time-out from positive reinforcement” when behavioral psychologists first introduced the concept, according to parenting guru Dr. Sears — has come under fire from psychologists who fear the practice does more harm than good when inappropriately implemented. “Time-out calls for a break in the undesirable action,” explains Sears.”It stops misbehavior and gives the older child, and parents, time to reflect. Instead of viewing it as a jail sentence, the older child should be taught to view it as a way of getting herself under control: a few minutes to reflect on what went wrong and how to make it right.”
The 1998 American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy paper on “Guidance for Effective Discipline,” which was re-affirmed in 2012, reports that in preschool children, the time-out has been shown to increase compliance with parental expectations from approximately 25 percent to 80 percent, and similar effectiveness is seen when used appropriately with older children. “Research supports the efficacy of time-outs when executed correctly,” blogged Dr. Daniel J. Siegel. clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and co-author of the new “No-Drama Discipline.” And by “correctly,” he means “brief, infrequent, previously explained breaks from an interaction used as part of a thought-out parenting strategy that is followed by positive feedback and connection with a parent.” Yet the method is all too often messed up and administered as a punishment when parents are angry, Siegel says, insisting that the consequences can be serious. “Decades of research in attachment demonstrate that particularly in times of distress, we need to be near and be soothed by the people who care for us,” he wrote for Time magazine in an article that sparked controversy in September. “When the parental response is to isolate the child, an instinctual psychological need of the child goes unmet.”
What the Experts Say
“Even when presented in a patient and loving manner, time-outs teach them that when they make a mistake, or when they are having a hard time, they will be forced to be by themselves — a lesson that is often experienced, particularly by young children, as rejection,” Siegel explains in Time. “It communicates to kids, ‘I’m only interested in being with you and being there for you when you’ve got it all together.’” Elaborating further to Yahoo Parenting, he says, “We live in stressed times when parents’ attuned connections to kids are strained, and ‘discipline’ has been misconstrued as punishment and not as teaching.”
But on the other hand, Kyle Pruett, clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale University’s Child Study Center, does recommend using time-outs — with the caveat that they be reserved for children older than 4. “They realize that the time out is not about losing a parent’s love,” tells Parents. “It’s about losing the privilege of Mom’s or Dad’s company because of something they did that was wrong.”
Further, time-outs tailored to every age group are appropriate, notes Dean Pearson, author of “Is Anybody in Charge? A Guide for Managing Children and Teaching Them Self-Control.” He advises: “A good rule of thumb is one minute per year of your child’s age.”
What Parents Say
“We use time-outs. I took a page right from the TV show, ‘The Nanny.’ My kids go in time out for the number of minutes equivalent to their age. I expect an explanation for why the time out happened and then an apology. It works for us. It really helps for getting our kids to cool down, step away from the situation, and be mindful of the situation.” — Molly D.
“I don’t use them. When I tried them, I just I just couldn’t keep my children contained. They wouldn’t stay in a chair and I refuse to put them in their room with the door shut. I think that’s cruel.” — Michelle D.
“I do put my kids in time-out on occasion. I think it’s effective in that they understand it’s really serious if they end up in time out. But I don’t think it works for all kids. And I don’t buy the latest hoping-to-sell-books theory on time outs and abandonment. A bit of a stretch!” — Meghan C.
The Bottom Line
A moment for children and parents to pause and reassess is certainly worth considering. Just try not to do it in the heat of the moment. “To be successful, time-out requires effort and practice on the part of the parents,” reports the American Academy of Pediatrics, noting that, if you choose to use the technique, it ”must be used consistently, for an appropriate duration, not excessively, and with strategies for managing escape behavior in place before the time-out is imposed.”