Child Development Central

Practical, evidence-based information for parents and professionals.

Time for the Straight Talk on Time Outs

What you need to know to make time outs work for you

With such an overload of information out there on the Internet, there’s been a lot of controversy over the years about how trustworthy websites really are, especially when it comes to dispensing parenting advice.  Because the Internet is often the go-to source for helping parents solve behavioral issues, a research group set out to see just how reliable it is for implementing the very effective discipline we all know as a time out.

The findings, recently published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, found the web is not dependable at all.   According to the authors, the odds of finding “complete and accurate information” were “near zero.”   Thirty percent of searches falsely suggested time outs might be harmful.  Inaccuracies, omissions and inconsistencies were found in all 102 websites explored.   This may lead parents to feel time outs ineffective and lead them to less useful, potentially harmful techniques such as yelling or spanking.

That’s a shame, because time outs are a proven parenting tool — when implemented correctly. They are one of the few disciplinary strategies recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics to reduce problem behaviors including non-compliance, oppositional actions, verbal and physical aggression, destruction of property, and temper tantrums. So here are the go-to guidelines for implementing time outs, according to the latest research:

Time-outs work best when they are part of a parenting style that focuses on affection and rewards. A high ratio of positive to negative feedback by parents provides a contrast that makes time outs most effective.  This may be the most important message of all from the research.   

Time out should be served in a boring environment. The effectiveness of the time out is impacted by the amount of activity and interest available to a child. The more stuff there is — TV, computer, cell phone, toys, even a coloring book and crayons —  the less effective the time out.

Use one warning only. Making one brief unemotional warning such as, If you do not do as I say, you will be going to time out, has been found to reduce the number of time outs a child will ever go through. By contrast, parents who repeat the warning decrease the effectiveness of the punishment. Immediacy is equally important — Go now!  The delay between the inappropriate behavior and the initiation of the time out should be as short as possible to reinforce your message.

Stick to a reasonable length for time outs.    Time outs of “moderate length” are more effective than shorter ones and may be as effective as longer ones.  A general recommendation for time outs is one minute per year of age.   However, some research suggests that 4 – 5 minute time outs are enough regardless of a child’s age. 

But don’t just rely on a timer. Waiting to release a child from time out until they are quiet and calm (even if the timer went off) is more effective in reducing disruptive behavior than allowing a child to leave when they are still kicking and screaming.

Be consistent. Pick a few behaviors to target and give the child time out every time they engage in one of those behaviors. Giving a time out only sometimes for the same misbehavior confuses children and makes learning the rules really hard.

Always follow through. Children should not be allowed to escape time out by agreeing to obey after you have told them to go to time out. This reinforces the inappropriate behavior.   Once you’ve stated a time out will happen, it happens.

Make it known who is in charge. And that’s you. Evidence suggests that a time out is significantly less effective when a child determines when the punishment ends — when you are ready to leave — compared to when an adult determines when the time out is over — when I say it’s okay. If your child leaves time out before you say it is OK, you need to return them quickly to time out (without talking to them) or provide a back-up consequence, such as no TV until they finish the time out.

Get the behavior right in the end. Kids end up in time out for doing something wrong or not doing what they’re told. Don’t let them off the hook. When the time out is complete, return to the scene of the crime — now go back and pick up your toys. If you don’t make closure, the same incident is more likely to be repeated.

Mark Bertin, M.D.,is a developmental behavioral pediatrician, an assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College, and the author of The Family ADHD Solution.

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