The purpose of discipline is to guide children toward acceptable and appropriate behavior so they can learn to control their own actions. Discipline helps a child become independent and self controlled. On the other hand, a lack of discipline in a child's life during the early years can promote insecurity, dependence, and uncontrolled behavior. Using time out is one way we can help children in this process.
If used properly, time out can be an effective tool to help your child understand why certain behaviors are not acceptable and guide your child to proper behavior. But, like many methods, it has its good and bad points. Take a few minutes to understand the good and bad of time out as discipline.
Ben, age 5, and Megan, age 3, are playing together in the playroom. Megan decides to feed the goldfish. She carefully pushes a chair in front of the fish tank and is about to sprinkle the food into the tank when Ben discovers her mission. He throws down his book, runs toward Megan, and pushes her off the chair, yelling, "No! I want to feed the fish!" The mom, whose attention is captured by Ben's yelling, sees Megan being pushed off the chair. Her immediate response is, "Time Out!"
Why is time out a good thing? For one thing, it helps a child gain control. Young children are learning to express their emotions with words instead of their bodies. Therefore, when they become excited, anxious, angry, or fearful, it is difficult for them to control themselves. A time out gives your child a chance to calm down and avoid escalation.
Time out also underscores the relationship between behavior and consequences. Discipline is about guiding children into acceptable and desirable behavior. Time outs give them an opportunity to make the connection between the behavior and the negative consequence.
Finally, time out is not just for kids—it can also be a saving grace for parents. Time outs allow the parent to relax and think without interruptions. Ideally, a parent should not discipline when they are frustrated and angry. But much like a child, adults often struggle to control their emotions. A break in the interaction gives parents an opportunity to gain control and handle the situation wisely.
Time outs can be more effective than physical discipline if used properly. Here are some tips on the best ways to use time out:
As with any method, time out loses its effectiveness when it is overused or not used correctly. Use it carefully and thoughtfully. It is important to remember that time outs do not solve the problem. They can just help everyone get to a calm place before talking about the problem. Here are some other things that may weaken the effect of a time out:
If you have a child with autism, time out may not be an effective discipline tool. Traditional methods of discipline that use negative reinforcement often make behaviors worse and increase tension. Consider reinforcing positive behaviors to decrease behavioral problems over time.
By now, you likely have a good idea of how and when to use time out as an effective way of changing behavior. But sometimes, situations arise that may not be easy to handle.
For instance, the may child refuse to go to the time out area. Physically taking your child there can be done in a controlled, yet firm manner. Calmly explain to the child where he or she is going and why. If it is presented as an option, the child will probably opt to continue in the behavior and will quickly realize that he or she has control over the parent.
After the child is brought to the time out area, he or she may not stay there. In these cases, the area you have selected may be too broad. For example, a chair is better than a sofa and a corner is better than a room. Standing behind, but close to the child may help to discourage freedom to move about. You may also want to restrain the child by gently holding him or her.
Your child may also continue to be angry or tantrum. Since time out is partially an opportunity to gain control, you may not want to start timing until they begin to calm down.
Another difficulty that may arise, particularly in sensitive children, is a need for extra affection and physical comforting. A sensitive child does not want to disappoint his parents, so he or she may immediately look to the parent for forgiveness and reassurance. Explain to the child that your love includes you to making sure that he or she does not get hurt or hurt others. Continue with the effective time out routine and follow-up with lots of love.
Even if the child apologizes and begs you to not go to time out, it is best not to change your mind. Accept and thank the child for the apology, then carry through with the consequence. Changing the consequence encourages manipulation.
Is the child trying to get your attention while in the time out area? Move further away so you are less distracted. When the time out period is over, give the child your full attention.
Some children may repeat the same behavior soon after the time out. In this case, ask the child if he or she remembers what happened the last time. If the child doesn't remember, provide a reminder, then follow through with the time out routine. Again, evaluate why the technique may not have been effective and then alter it accordingly. If the behavior continues, take a closer look at what may be causing it.
It is important to remember that the behaviors we observe in children are the outward actions of their inner thoughts. Therefore, as a parent you should concern yourself with what is observable as well as what is not observable. What caused the behavior that resulted in the need for time out? Sometimes, something as simple as changing the environment, being sure the child's needs are met, or communicating appropriate expectations can prevent the same behavior from happening again.
Ultimately, incorporating time out, as well as other positive discipline techniques, can help children build positive behaviors, allowing them to become independent and self-disciplined.
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
Kids Health—Nemours Foundation
123 Time Out Advantages and Disadvantages. Attachment Parenting Canada website. Available at: http://www.attachmentparenting.ca/articles/articlea1.htm. Accessed October 13, 2016.
Disciplining Your Child. Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/Pages/Disciplining-Your-Child.aspx. Updated November 21, 2015. Accessed October 13, 2016.
Riley AR, Wagner DV, et al. A survey of parents' perceptions and utilization of time-out in comparison to empirical evidence. Acad Pediatr. 2016 Nov 14.
Time-Out as a Discipline Technique. Center for Effective Parenting website. Available at: http://www.parenting-ed.org/handouts/timeout.pdf. Accessed October 13, 2016.
Last reviewed October 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 1/26/2017