Please note that time outs are not allowed in Wisconsin (licensing rule) for a child under 3 years of age.
Over the last few decades, the use of time out for kids has become an increasingly popular method for dealing with inappropriate behavior in kids.
Here’s the good news about the use of time-outs: It is supported by science as an effective way to correct toddler behavior. The bad news? Most people are doing it wrong.
Five decades of research show that using time out to discipline is a proven disciplinary technique. But it seems to get a bad rep in the media in recent years.
Some believe that toddler time outs are ineffective because they don’t teach children better behavior. Yet, giving toddler time-outs is still a toddler discipline technique officially recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Why is there a disagreement?
That’s because 85% of parents use time-out incorrectly, and the incorrect usage can hurt children1.
Time-out’s full name is time-out from positive reinforcement. It is a procedure in which the child is briefly removed from an environment that is reinforcing bad behavior, and placed in a safe space that is not reinforcing.
This strategy was invented, tested, and modified by child psychologists in the 1950s. Throughout the 1960s to 1980s, there was a large body of research dedicated to proving that it could stop unwanted behavior 2.
Unfortunately, adequate training or correct information is not always available. Most parents rely on other parents, the internet, parenting books, or guesswork. With time, time-out has grown to include improper elements that barely resemble the original method.
The first step is to specify the rule. Tell your child if they perform an undesired behavior, they’ll get a time-out. But if they stop, or perform the desired behavior, they’ll get another outcome. Tell them this is the only warning.
Once a warning is given, if the misbehavior continues, a timeout needs to happen immediately. Clearly state the reason. Do not allow “second chance” or negotiation. Otherwise, escaping the time-out will serve to reinforce the inappropriate behavior.
The time-out space should have very little social, sensory, material, toys, or activity reinforcements. Studies show that the more stimulating the time-out place, the less effective it is3.
If the child refuses to stay in the time-out area, gently lead them back. You may have to do this a few times, but be consistent and kind. You can stay by their side to ensure they stay there, but do not interact with them.
The idea is to make this place “boring” with no reinforcers. Do not allow any kind of interactions, activities, or materials that may become unintended reinforcement.
A widespread belief is that the length of time should increase with the child’s age (1 minute per year of age). However, there’s a lack of consistent evidence supporting that claim. In fact, studies show that 2-5 minute time-outs are as effective as longer ones for older children4–7.
Even if the time is up, the child needs to show a few seconds of quiet and calm behavior before being released.
Before ending the time-out, reissue the initial command. The child must follow the instruction to end the time-out procedure so that they will not use time-out to escape a command.
To prevent the next unacceptable behavior, positive reinforcement is a key ingredient. Pay position attention to good behavior. Provide a home environment full of a close parent-child relationship, positive interactions, and interesting activities. Praise them when you catch them doing good things.
If a child lives in an environment filled with negative interactions, or a lack of affection and fun activities, it won’t make much difference whether a child is put into a time-out or not, and therefore will not be an effective technique in discouraging misbehavior8.
One of the most common misuses of time-out is the focus on using it as a punishment – an unnatural negative consequence imposed on the child to make them feel bad.
Time-out is not intended to be a punishment. It is a behavior modification tool that teaches a child to make good behavioral decisions. The child learns to make a decision that has a certain consequence. Giving a warning every time provides the child with the chance to make a good choice.
However, when young children misbehave or throw temper tantrums, frustrated caregivers often find it difficult to control their own feelings. They use timeouts out of anger to punish.
Time-out becomes a punishment when it’s given with hostility, yelling, intimidating tone of voice, long duration, or humiliation, such as using a naughty chair or standing in a corner in front of the whole class in school. None of these practices teach your child how to behave appropriately.
Using time-out chairs for toddlers to shame or humiliate the child is particularly damaging as shame and humiliation are linked to a higher risk for depression later in adolescents9.
Toddlers learn self-regulating and self-control skills through observation and parent-child interactions. Parents who exhibit harsh or hostile emotions when giving time-outs model dysregulated behavior for the child to imitate10. So when time-outs are used as punishment, the only things the child learns are feelings of isolation and rejection, and emotional dysregulation.
Rejection and isolation induce relational pains. In brain scans, scientists found that when a child experiences relational pain, the brain areas that are activated are the same areas activated by physical pain11. We know that physical assault, such as corporal punishment, can hurt a developing mind12. So, when time-outs are used as punishment, the pain caused can be harmful to the develping brain, too.
Giving time-out is also not about giving the child time to “reflect” or “think about what they did”. No young kids ever come out of a time-out remorseful or vowing not to misbehave ever again. Instead, they are probably more resentful and more determined to avoid getting caught the next time or seek revenge on the person who got them into trouble.
In a 2015 study, Amy Drayton and colleagues surveyed over 100 respected Internet websites. They found that no website included complete and accurate information on using time-out4.
This finding is alarming because nowadays many parents depend on the Internet for parenting information. Since the publication of that study, several websites have updated their advice and tips in their articles, but many still retain inconsistent or inaccurate information, confirmed by another study in 201813.
When frustrated parents follow incorrect information and do not obtain the desired effect, they may become angrier and resort to harsh methods, such as yelling or physical punishment. These methods are strongly associated with behavioral problems, such as aggressive behavior, conduct disorder or oppositional defiance disorder, and internalizing problems, such as anxiety or depression.
Although, when used appropriately, time out for kids is an effective strategy, it is not an end-all-be-all discipline. Parents need a variety of disciplinary tools for different situations.
Time-outs are also not the best way to deal with certain toddler issues, such as tantrums.
Using distractions to redirect a budding tantrum, modeling appropriate behavior for toddlers to emulate, teaching self-regulation skills to calm big emotions, and using inductive discipline to explain natural consequences are all good alternatives to add to the big bag of parenting tricks.