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The Problem with Time-Outs

Time-outs delivered in anger may have damaging effects.

Time-outs are the most commonly used, and commonly recommended, form of discipline in the US. They’re thought to be humane and rational, giving children the opportunity for deescalation and reflection.

But new research suggests time-outs may have detrimental neurobiological effects comparable to those of spanking.

The cognitive and intellectual impact of spanking has been widely explored. Recent studies have found correlates between spanking and delayed skill development, ongoing autonomic deregulation, delayed vocabulary development, lower IQ, decreased grey matter density, and increased vulnerability to drug and alcohol abuse (Glaser 2000; Van der Kolk 2002; Straus & Paschall 2009; Mehta et al. 2009; Sheu et al. 2010). For parents convinced of these dangers, and of the irrationality of meeting misbehavior with physical punishment, time-outs have been a safe haven.

But in their new book, No-Drama Discipline, psychologists Daniel Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson argue that by causing “relational pain” time-outs are also hurting our children neurobiologically. They often make children angrier and more dysregulated. And brain imaging studies suggest that the rejection and isolation associated with time-outs has effects comparable to those resulting from physical pain (Siegal & Bryson 2014).

Siegal and Bryson suggest, in lieu of time-outs, “time-ins,” which consist of sitting with your child, while talking and comforting to help them regulate.

To me, “time-ins” don’t solve it. But the concept does expose a nuance of giving time-outs that we don’t talk about enough. Namely, there’s a massive difference between giving your child a time out in anger and giving your child a time out in a loving, calm way. Too often we apply the technique, but not the spirit of technique. Time-outs are meant to deescalate a volatile situation and to help our children regain control, as much as they are to provide a consequence for unruly behavior.

Even the Super Nanny, made famous for her ability to enter a chaotic household and restore order (mainly through the use of consistently applied time-outs) understood something fundamental about this nuance. Time-outs, she insisted, should be applied calmly and predictably. One website, providing “Super Nanny time-out secrets,” suggests showing affection before and after administering a time-out, not arguing, and making sure your body gestures are not overly stern or rejecting (KidPointz). The point of making eye contact and explaining the rationale for time-outs is to maintain a sense of connection rather than to elicit a sense of shame and humiliation.

Most of us have given time-outs in anger, and most of us have let it show. Sometime our own systems become as dysregulated as our children’s, making it impossible to give a “time-in” because we require physical space to modulate our own arousal. But we need to establish an ideal, and to distinguish between an appropriately administered time-out and a problematic one.

Anger and rejection ARE effective to the extent that they can extinguish negative behaviors. But that’s probably not our only goal. To the higher aims of teaching self-regulation, maintaining attachment and connection, and modeling respect, as well as establishing consistent boundaries, time-outs should be punishing solely in terms of removing a child from a situation in which they are employing undesirable behavior. In linking the punishment to the emotional consequences of anger and rejection, we’re working against these goals.


Glaser, D. (2000). Child abuse and neglect and the brain: A review. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 41(1), 97-116)

KidPointz. Super-Nanny time-out secrets.…

Mehta M.A., Golembo, N.I., Nosarti, C., Colvert, E., Mota, A., Williams, S.C.R., Rutter, M. & Sonuga-Barke, E.J.S. (2009). Amygdala, hippocampal and corpus callosum size following severe early institutional deprivation: The English and Romanian Adoptees study pilot. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 50, 943–951

Sheu, Y-S., Polcan, A., Anderson, C.M., et al. 2010. Harsh corporal punishment is associated with increased T2 relaxation time in dopamine-rich regions. Neuroimage 53, 412-9.

Siegal, D. & Bryson, T.P. (2014). No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. (New York: Bantam).

Straus, M.A. & Paschall, M.J. (2009). Corporal punishment by mothers and the development of children’s cognitive ability: A longitudinal study of two nationally representative age cohorts. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma 18, 459-483.

Van der Kolk B. 2002. Trauma and memory. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 52 (1), 52–64.

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