Why Timeout as a Punishment Doesn’t Work

By Judy Arnall, author of Discipline without Distress, www.professionalparenting.ca

Judy ArnallAre you tired of holding the bedroom door handle closed when your school-aged child is trying to leave during a timeout? Fed up with your child trashing his room during timeout? Frustrated because you can’t get your child to calm down and think about restitution during his timeout?

Perhaps it’s time to re-think the way a timeout is used. Timeout is a popular behavior modification technique designed to punish unacceptable behavior. Much like the use of a penalty box in a hockey game, the absence from positive play is supposed to teach children to stop doing the behavior that got them sent there. However, it rarely works.

The Origin of Timeout

When parenting experts advised parents not to spank, timeout grew as a replacement for spanking. It was promoted under many names: quality time, reflection time, thinking time, timeout. It is promoted for children as young as one year old up to 13 years old, because then children are usually too big to be dragged off to their rooms. Parents loved it, because it sounded respectful and it gave them something concrete to do in times of misbehavior, rather than “not doing anything because spanking is not allowed anymore.” As the popularity of timeout grew, experts turned the purpose of timeout from a punishment that extinguishes behavior into a more acceptable-sounding purpose as a tool that enabled a child to “calm down.” However, as more and more parents used timeout to help their child “calm down,” they began to use it less as a calming tool and more as punishment.

The Problem with Timeout as a Punishment

What is wrong with timeout? Many children do not respond well to being jailed. Evidence shows that timeout increases aggression, misunderstanding, anger, and retaliation and rarely builds the parent-child relationship. It doesn’t teach children conflict resolution, communication, or calm-down skills.

In school-aged children, self-control of their emotions is still very limited and they need help to calm down. There are many ways to learn self-control without being isolated. Sure, being taken out of the escalating situation helps, but then a child needs a calm adult to coach him in calming techniques and then problem-solve what he can do the next time in that situation. We don’t teach children math by locking them in their room with a math book. Why would we do the same with teaching emotional self-regulation?

We are raising an entire generation of children averse to taking a timeout as an adult, because they have only experienced it as a punishment in childhood. That is scary.

Taking a timeout from a situation is a good skill. Adults often take timeouts for themselves when they are angry and frustrated. They go for a walk, blow off steam at the racquetball court, or deep-breathe in a quiet place. The timeout is a useful skill to teach your children, but the way we teach it is faulty. The best time to discuss the timeout with your child is not in the emotional heat of the moment. Do it during a neutral time, where you both are in good moods. Observe how your child usually calms himself and ask for his input. What does she need to help herself calm down? Can you brainstorm some ideas together?

Parents use the term “timeout” for many different types of discipline techniques. Wondering whether your form of timeout is consistent with Attachment Parenting? Read pages 230-233 of Attached at the Heart by API Co-founders Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker.

Using Timeout as a Teaching Tool

Because timeout is so often confused and misinterpreted, I like to use the word “time-in” instead to describe the act of a parent helping a child calm down. There are five differences between the two types:

Parent-Directed Time-out (Not Recommended)

  • WHAT:  Used as a punishment.
  • WHEN:  Send the child away for a certain number of minutes per year of age.
  • HOW:  Give the child nothing to do and instruct the child to “think” about his actions. (Often, the older child is really thinking about his anger, the unfairness of the situation, and/or how to retaliate. Or, the younger child is often confused and overwhelmed by his strong emotions and doesn’t understand why he is abandoned.)
  • WHO:  Parent requires child to be isolated.
  • WHERE:  Parent decides the location, such as an empty chair, stripped bedroom, or stairstep; usually a place with nothing to do and no distractions, in order to punish.

Child-Directed Time-in (Recommended)

  • WHAT: Used as a calming strategy.
  • WHEN:  Suggest the child takes a timeout from the situation, either physically or emotionally. Let the child decide when he’s calm enough to start problem-solving the issue.
  • HOW:  Give the child tools to calm down, that suit his learning style, while he sorts out his feelings. The auditory learner needs soothing music. The visual learner might wish to watch an aquarium, video, or draw a picture. The kinesthetic learner might benefit from hugging stuffed toys, or having a parent rub his shoulders or hands, or deep-breathing practice.
  • WHO:  Ask the child if he wishes you or another adult to stay, comfort, and talk with him. An extroverted child may need a sounding board, whereas an introverted child may need solitude. All children need a reassuring hug, shoulder rub, or even a cuddle, no matter what their age.
  • WHERE:  Child chooses the location such as a bedroom, special fort, going for a walk, or even the basketball hoop. It may even be the same room.

Confronting Your Fear of Not Using Punishment

Now, for the most common question: Will giving my child a hug and lending my presence to him during a time-in encourage him to continue his misbehavior?

  • Yes…if that’s the only time he gets your love and attention.
  • No…if it’s only one of many times he gets it. In fact, when he is calm and you have both come from a place of connection and warmth, then he is ready to let the logic of his brain start learning. The connection you have built from the hug encourages him to listen to your wisdom, advice, and teaching about what to do next time that he is in the same difficult situation. Children are ready to problem-solve with you about their misbehavior much more readily from a point of connection.

The Crucial Piece: A Calm Adult

Remember that you, the adult, need to remain calm for all this to work. Use parent timeouts for yourself to control your anger. Stepping back from a power struggle doesn’t mean the child “wins.” It means you are mature enough to take a self-imposed timeout and calm down before you get to the problem-solving stage. Isn’t that ultimately what you want to teach your children? We don’t teach children the wonderful skill of timeout by forcing it on them. We teach them by using it ourselves.

3 thoughts on “Why Timeout as a Punishment Doesn’t Work”

  1. thats why when a child sneezes all over the table, she gets a warning. we love God and we love our children and we will never let them go. however when she hits someone downstairs, she gets a time-out for 1 minute per year of age up to 12 minutes because hitting is not okay. when she hits someone upstairs, she gets a spanking 5 times. A time-out downstairs in our home is for 1 minute per year of age up to 12 minutes. A teenager gets 12 minutes, while a toddler would get 3 minutes. A kindergartner gets 5 minutes. A preschooler gets 4 minutes. An 8 1/2 year old gets 8 1/2 minutes. A 7 year old gets 7 minutes. An eighth-grader gets 5 minutes. In the eighth and ninth grades, 5 minutes are required for a time-out. We dont use 1 minute per year of age for eighth-and-ninth-graders. We use 5 minutes. Downstairs time-out=a 1-year-old up to a 9th grader
    Upstairs spanking=a 1-year-old up to a 9th grader
    Downstairs time-out=10th grader+
    Upstairs time-out=10th grader+
    Whenever a 10th grader starts acting up downstairs, we send them to the couch or to the left chair. Whenever a 10th grader starts acting up upstairs, we send them to their rooms.

  2. I stopped spanking long ago when someone suggested to me that it was counterintuitive for an adult to hit a child to teach him that hitting is wrong. A child who hits is usually unable to control the impulse or feeling powerless in the situation. An adult who hits is usually seeking revenge or believes he is teaching a lesson. The lesson is that I am bigger than you and I can hurt you more.

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