Articles

The Trouble with Time-Out

Published: 09 May 2022
Time out

Discipline has long been conflated with violence. Throughout most of human history, children’s mistakes and misdemeanours have been met with whipping, spanking, and even public hangings. So when behaviourism came along – a branch of psychology that promised that we can make people behave the way we want by manipulating their environment, it seemed like we were on to a good thing. In fact, John B. Watson, a behaviourist and one of the world’s most eminent psychologists of the early 1900s, famously said:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

In essence, behaviourism argues that we can “get” people (or children) to behave the way we want them to by reinforcing “good” behaviour and punishing “bad” behaviour.


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Many of us were raised by parents who adhered to principles of behaviourism such as using punishments and rewards to gain compliance, and many of us are raising our children the same way now. One behaviourist technique that is still widely utilised (by 72.4% of Australian parents), is the time-out strategy.

Time-Out - a Brief History

Time-out was originally developed by a behavioural psychologist named Arthur Staats. Because of his invention of time-out for children, Staats (rhymes with “spots”) has been recognised as one of the 20 people who changed childhood; his legacy is huge. 

Time-out was initially used as a behavioural technique with pigeons and rats, and the term is shorthand for timeout from positive reinforcement. When an animal carries out a desired behaviour it receives a treat - or a positive reinforcement. The animal learns that “if I do this thing the human wants me to do, I’ll get the treat.” And so the treat reinforces the behaviour, meaning the behaviour will be repeated more often. 

If the animal doesn’t do what it was trained to do, the consequence is that it will miss out on the treat (the positive reinforcement). Thus, the non-compliant animal has time-out from the positive reinforcement it was receiving (the food) and learns that if it wants the goody, it has to do the act it was trained to do.

Staats saw how this process worked with rats, dogs, pigeons, and seals, and wondered if it could work with children - and his process became globally popular. Staats and his collaborators found that removing a child from the place where drama was unfolding helped the child with self-control, and he argued that time-out was preferable to punishment in shaping behaviour. (I can only assume he meant physical punishment like ‘smacking/spanking’ since time-out is actually a form of emotional punishment.) As a bonus, Staats discovered that time-out gave frustrated parents a short break so they could self-regulate and think before they acted. 

Time-Out – what does it mean?

While there is general consensus on what time-out should look like, the specifics vary mildly from researcher to researcher. Typically, the steps are as follows:

1. Give Warnings

Parents should let a child know that their behaviour is not acceptable and communicate clearly that if a change doesn’t happen, a time-out will. Most researchers agree that there should only be one time-out warning given. And the type of behaviour that time-out should be used with is particularly important… more on that soon.

2. Explain the Time-Out

If a child chooses not to comply with the instruction from the parent to improve his/her behaviour within 5-10 seconds, parents should say “you are going to time-out because you …”, without scolding, yelling, or becoming emotional.

3. Carry out the Time-Out

Once the explanation has been provided, parents are supposed to take their child to time-out and tell them to stay for the appropriate time. This is where the instructions vary the most. One minute per age is a commonly spouted recommendation (though this is not supported by the research). Some suggest that just a minute or two is enough, while others suggest 5-15 minutes is better. While longer durations seem to work just as well as shorter ones, researchers suggest that “time-outs longer than 10 minutes do not yield additional benefits and may be unethical. (They’ve assessed time-outs of up to 90 minutes in some studies! And found it makes no difference.)

The key thing to remember is that it must be boring. Once in time-out, a child is literally being removed from positive reinforcement, which means the expectation is that they sit and do nothing apart from reflect on what they’ve done wrong. 

4. End the Time-Out

Once your child has completed their time (however long that actually is, depending on your preferred behavioural psychologist) - and sat quietly - time-out advocates suggest that then it is time to let them know that they can leave. Parents are encouraged to remind the child of behavioural expectations. (Again, some confusion exists here, with some researchers saying your child must be still and quiet/compliant before the time-out is concluded, while others say it doesn’t matter if your child still has attitude or is fussing.)

5. Praise 

Lastly, when you see your child doing the right thing, give them lots of praise. This is another lynchpin of behavioural methodology. “Catch your child doing something right and praise them for it.”

Let’s look at what research says about time-out. 

Time-Out effectiveness

Professor Bob Larzelere is a parenting discipline guru, and a strong proponent of time-out. In a 2020 research article (a meta-analysis, where several studies are combined to understand overall effects) he and his colleagues found that, when compared with exclusively “positive” parenting techniques:

  • Time-outs are useful in resolving conflict when they’re combined with positive parenting (e.g., clarification, reasoning and negotiation) 
  • Some children need timeout to improve their responsiveness to positive parenting
  • Use of timeout increases compliance to parental demands and decreases fighting between siblings quicker than using exclusively positive parenting strategies
  • Any improvement in behaviour due to positive parenting techniques is enhanced by the disciplinary component of timeout
  • There is no evidence to show that time-out is harmful to a child’s mental health, and
  • There is more cumulative evidence for time-outs than exclusionary positive parenting strategies. 

For the time-out advocate, it’s about to get even better! According to recent (2020) longitudinal research from Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan where children were tracked from age 36 months through until Grade 5 overall outcomes in terms of internalising problems (anxiety, depression) and externalising problems (aggression, self-control) and creativity measures for children were found to be similar whether or not parents reported using timeouts.

In other words, use of time-out was not associated with long-term negative outcomes. And if we stay on the time-out winning streak, research from 2021 points out that:

  • Parents reported that time-out was more effective when they were using the empirically supported time-out steps. 
  • Time-outs can be used frequently, which allows a parent to be consistent in their response to misbehaviour. 
  • Time-outs are effective when the child is non-compliant with a direct command or instruction.

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The authors suggest that “given the effectiveness and established safety of time-out… the delivery of evidence-based parent training programmes that include time-out is likely to result in parents being better equipped to respond to their child’s challenging behaviour”.

Professor Mark Dadds directs the Sydney Child Behaviour Research Clinic, based at the University of Sydney. As a clinical psychologist, he was originally trained in behavioural psychology, which I’ve mentioned is founded on the belief that all behaviour can be trained or manipulated by punishments and rewards. (Professor Dadds is another strong advocate for the use of time-out in parenting - he did the study showing how prevalent time-out use is that I cited earlier - and has been publicly critical of my negative stance on time-out.)

In a 2019 article, he emphasised evidence that effective discipline:

  • Reduces parent-child conflict, 
  • Presents parents as positive role models of mental health, 
  • Reduces the likelihood of challenging behaviour in children, 
  • Makes parents feel like they’re on top of things (self-efficacy)
  • Avoids disrupting the attachment bond between parent and child
  • Enhances a child’s ability to self-regulate, and
  • Teaches children values. 

His research analysis argues that time-out does all of these things. 

I disagree

I’m going to go deeper into my response to this (and other research) shortly. First, we do need to have a look at these points and consider if time-out really meets these criteria.

First, Professor Dadds is right that effective discipline will do all of those things. The trouble is that time out and other punitive discipline strategies such as threats, withdrawing privileges, and smacking - undermine every one of these benefits.

“Reduces parent-child conflict”: Most parents I speak to highlight that time-out increases conflict. While the guidelines suggest that time-out should be enforced dispassionately, the parent typically has to blow up like a pufferfish to enforce a time-out. The child resists, tantrums, and screams that they hate time-out! The parent feels triggered because the child is disobedient and disrespectful of their parenting authority. Conflict often escalates until the child discovers he/she is powerless, has no voice, and eventually becomes submissive. 

(Note: the research evidence says time-out must be enforced dispassionately. Parents should be calm. I think that any parent who can enforce a time-out gently and calmly can probably carry out more positive parenting strategies just as effectively – and everyone would feel so much better!)

“Presents parents as positive role models of mental health”: If being mentally healthy is consistent with forcing someone weaker than you to bend their will to yours through forcible isolation, your view of mental health is somewhat different to mine.

“Reduces the likelihood of challenging behaviour in children”: The data below will present evidence that this can be the case. I guess when you’re “broken”, you become subservient and compliant. However, time out isn’t the only way, or even the best way, to accomplish this. 

“Increases parental self-efficacy”: I’m tempted to be cheeky about this, but let’s be honest instead. Do you feel like you’re in control of your life and your emotions when you use your power to coerce the kids to follow a particular direction, in spite of their protestations and preferences? My personal experience is that I have felt worse and less in control as a parent when I have used time-out with my children, rather than more in control.

“Avoids disrupting attachment”: My challenge here is that when you forcibly isolate a dysregulated child - one who is confused, struggling, upset, or otherwise needing help to get things together - you certainly are not strengthening attachment and trust. Depending on how time-out is implemented, it seems logical that punishing a disconsolate child with the removal of any kind of relational positive reinforcement (at the point where they probably need it the most) is more likely to disrupt than enhance attachment. 

“Enhances child self-regulation”: Do children really learn to regulate better when placed in their bedroom, the laundry, or the cupboard under the stairs? 

“Teach children values”: Let’s pause and consider what values are taught in time-out. The big person gets to push the little person around? When you do things I don’t like I ignore you, isolate you, or hurt you? My agenda is the only one that counts?

The Trouble with Time-Out

But with so much evidence - even from large scale meta-analytic studies - how could I possibly argue against time-out? 

A careful look at these studies, and those that have preceded them over the past couple of decades, highlights some significant issues that we have to address. I’m going to focus on the following areas: first, implementation; second, philosophical and moral misgivings; third, there are almost always more positive alternatives. 


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The implementation issue

As I pointed out earlier, there is considerable confusion around how to use time-out as a discipline tool. One of the most common time-out mistakes is its overuse. Time-out is best used as a circuit breaker to stop things getting worse, rather than an effective lesson-giver where a child considers her misdeeds. But that’s not how most parents use it.

According to Samantha Corralejo and her collaborators, average parenting programs make suggestions regarding time-outs that are only 43% consistent with research, average parenting books are only 32% consistent with research, and popular parenting websites are only 31.5% consistent with the research. Most information provided is not evidence-based, and up to 20% is actually inconsistent with the research. Supernanny, I’m looking at you!

Let me be really, really clear on this point: many people writing programs, advice, and counsel for parents promote the use of time-out. And most of them are giving ineffective, factually inaccurate information about the use of time-out!

When I discussed the implementation of time-out with Professor Bob Larzelere, one of the world’s foremost time-out experts, he responded in an email with the following:

Our recent study of toddlers indicated that time-out is counterproductive when toddlers are more cooperative, as indicated by their type of noncompliance (negotiation or whining, which is often how toddlers negotiate; both types are looking toward parents, looking for a compromise). In contrast time-out is a helpful part of disciplinary responses when toddlers are oppositional, but only if it is used less than 1/6 of the time. The other 84% or more of disciplinary responses should be positive, especially offering an alternative verbally or nonverbally (e.g., by distraction or redirecting).

Let me break that down for everyone playing along at home. 

A global-expert in time-out (who is, by the way, a tremendously kind and generous man - and one I thoroughly enjoy talking and debating with) is telling us that time-out only works when toddlers are oppositional and if we use it as a strategy less than ⅙ of the time! I’m not sure how many parents have their notebooks out so they can tally how frequently they’re using time-outs with their toddlers and pre-schoolers, but that’s the expert view.

And while Professor Dadds and his colleagues have argued that time-out is effective, they also acknowledge that time-out should ONLY be used for inappropriate behaviour that is deliberate, and not for behaviour that represents a lack of understanding, mistakes, fear and other overwhelming emotions. And can we be real about this? Most deliberate behaviour comes from lack of understanding, mistakes, fear, and other big emotions anyway!

Professor Dadds also points out that time-out should only be used for pre-specified problematic behaviour. While most parents would agree with that in principle, it might be challenging to implement in practice.

This is KEY information that is usually ignored by the “advice-givers” who are writing the parenting books and blogs. And can we be real for a moment? Even if the advice in the books and programs was accurate and in line with what Professors Dadds and Larzelere are suggesting, most parents aren’t going to remember to follow it like that.  

The researchers I’ve cited above specifically acknowledge that about 23% of caregivers who use time-out use it frequently, indicating indiscriminate use which is against evidence-based protocol. Another 33% of parents use it inappropriately for fear or anxiety reactions. And almost half of parents use an inappropriate location for time-out. 

And the trouble with all of the above is that problematic implementation reduces how effective time-out actually is. And when parents feel like time-out isn’t working, they’re more likely to escalate to other forms of discipline like yelling or smacking.

If parents use time-out too much, or for the wrong behaviour, or for too long, or mess up their time-out practice, the fact is that time-out may leave a child feeling unworthy, helpless, hopeless, and more out-of-sorts. Rather than Dadds’ argument that time-out reduces parent-child conflict, presents parents as positive role models of mental health, and avoids disrupting the attachment bond between parent and child, it’s possible (if not highly likely) that it will do precisely the opposite. It’s bound to impact the attachment bond as it communicates to the child that the parent’s love and attention is contingent on the child’s behaviour. The child learns that “I’m only valued and worthy in my parent’s eyes when I do the stuff they say.” 

Moreover, the parent is not available to help them manage difficult feelings. Therefore, counter to Dadds’ suggestion that it helps a child self-regulate, time-out may also challenge a child’s ability to do this, as they are separated from a parent who could help them learn self-regulation skills through careful co-regulation with the parent.

Moral and Philosophical Issues

There are so many logical, moral, and philosophical failure points when it comes to time-out. Let me list them briefly:

  1. Despite many experts arguing time-out is not punishment (including Staats, Larzelere, Baumrind, Sanders, Dadds, and so many more) it’s kind of hard to argue that point. I mean… we take a child from a situation and isolate her. We tell her to stop it, calm down, and when she’s calm she can come out. I’d imagine that if you asked a child if it feels like punishment, she’d likely say “yes”. The simple reality is that time-out is often implemented as punishment (even if that’s not the research-based intention). And punishments, as I’ve outlined in this article, don’t help children learn anything we want them to learn.
  2. Time-outs don’t help kids regulate their emotions. They instead push their emotions deeper down. But emotions don’t vanish by being banished. And children don’t learn about their emotions, how to handle them, why they exist, and so on, when parents stick them in the corner for having those emotions. This only makes them more likely to feel like there’s something wrong with themselves.
  3. Time-outs, as Alfie Kohn highlights, are really a form of forcible isolation. We know that solitary confinement is a human rights violation yet researchers argue that it’s a suitable form of ‘discipline’ for a young child.
  4. Rather than softening a child, time-outs are more likely to lead to power struggles as you impose your demand on your child to sit there, be bored, and wait until they’re allowed to leave.
  5. Time-out ignores the reason your child is troubled, and often doesn’t lead to any improvement in behaviour or insight. 
  6. Time-out is likely to deepen any weaknesses in your relationship with your child as they are isolated from you again, and again, and again.

Morally, philosophically, and logically, time-out isn’t going to help your child in most cases.

But let’s look at this in the adult context for a moment. 

Say you’re upset with your wife, husband, or partner. They’re being belligerent; oppositional. They’re not listening to you. They’re demanding to be heard or to have things their way. In frustration you say to them, 

Your behaviour is unacceptable. If you keep this up I’ll send you to your room for a time-out.

After they stop laughing, they might take you up on it. A 45-minute break in the bedroom probably sounds good to them.

Or rather than laughing, perhaps they’ll throw things at you. Hard. In all probability your tongue-lashing and threat of time-out is not going to be well received.

Jokes aside, can you imagine being sent to your room because someone didn’t like your attitude? Or because you weren’t regulating your behaviour and emotions well?

Yet this is what we do to children.

It makes no sense. Surely there are better ways to help our children through their difficult times.

There are better ways to discipline children

If you’ve read this far, congratulations. There’s a lot to take in here. But perhaps one of the most valuable lessons we can learn from the current time-out research is that there are far better ways to help our children learn to behave prosocially, self-regulate, and make things work in family life than this particular tool.

If you think animal training methods should be applied to how we raise our children, time-out will work just fine for you (though it’s still questionable about how well it will work for your children). If you think that your child deserves better than the reinforcement schedules used for rats, pigeons, dogs, and seals, let’s go back to my scenario where you, as an adult, are sent to your room. 


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Here’s my question: 

In a situation where you, as an adult, are emotionally and behaviourally struggling, what do you want from those you love and trust?

It’s true that in some instances you might want space. But my guess is that you don’t want it forced upon you. Perhaps if your partner gently commented, “You’re having a rough day. Do you want me to be with you just now? Or would you rather have some space and time for yourself?”

Chances are that you’ll feel honoured and heard rather than punished.

And perhaps this is a good model for us when our children are struggling? Let’s acknowledge what we see and give our children choice: “Do you want me to stay here and help you with this or would you rather have some space?”

You’ll note that there are a couple of challenges with this form of discipline. The first is that it’s a little bit vague. There’s no step-by-step process to follow. Instead, it’s about honouring the relationship with your child, honouring their emotional world, becoming attuned, and discovering a solution together. That’s complex.

The second challenge is that for a stressed-out, time-poor parent who just wants peace and quiet, or a little less sass and a little more respect, this approach may not always be realistic. It can be even harder if a parent is struggling with mental health issues or other “needs” that impedes their ability to self-regulate and work with their child. In that case, taking a parental time-out (moving yourself to another room so you can self-regulate) would probably be a good idea. 

The third challenge is that it’s not a quick-fix. And such a choice isn’t always reasonable. A child may refuse to work with you. They may scream the house down no matter what you do.

Perhaps we can use Professor Dadd’s description of good discipline to compare this approach (which we’ll call time-in) with time-out though?

As a reminder, in his 2019 article, he emphasised evidence that effective discipline:

  • Reduces parent-child conflict, 
  • Presents parents as positive role models of mental health, 
  • Reduces the likelihood of challenging behaviour in children, 
  • Makes parents feel like they’re on top of things (self-efficacy)
  • Avoids disrupting the attachment bond between parent and child
  • Enhances a child’s ability to self-regulate, and
  • Teaches children values. 

The time-in approach I’ve suggested, where we explore, explain, and empower, is undeniably superior on each of his seven points in comparison to time-out. Because we’re working together, there will be less conflict. It’s undeniably a better way to model mentally healthy interaction, and should reduce challenging behaviour because kids don’t have anyone or anything to fight against. It absolutely makes parents feel like they can do this! And it creates stronger bonds. Kids learn to regulate emotions because a kind adult is supporting them. And they learn values that will guide them for the rest of their lives.

A disclaimer

Time-in may seem like it’s not working. And it’s true, sometimes the research shows that it’s not as ‘effective’ as time-out. These studies often measure effectiveness in two ways – immediate compliance, and subsequent misbehaviour. And time-in does take more effort and time than a time-out. But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.

While time-outs often result in a compliant, submissive child, this is more a result of the child learning how to push down their emotions rather than any real intent to change their behaviour. But when we take the time to sit with them, explore what they’re feeling and why they’re behaving the way they are and empower them to make change, we help them work through their emotions and help them develop crucial self-regulation and problem-solving skills.

Secondly, it may seem that there is more misbehaviour using this approach. Again, I think this is reflective of the problems with time-out. When children are punished, they learn that there’s no point showing you that they’re struggling. So they hide their big feelings and become more sneaky with their misbehaviour. But when parents respond with empathy and understanding, they become a safe place, and the child feels secure enough to show their true feelings.

So what sort of parent do you want to be?

No parent is perfect. And we all flip our lid sometimes. But ultimately discipline is less about the kids and more about the kind of person we want to be. 

So who do you want to be? The punitive arbiter who doles out rewards and punishments based on your mood and your child’s compliance? Or the compassionate help for your child, guiding her through tough times with patience, clarity, an eye on expectations and boundaries, and a willingness to work together for an outcome that is suitable for everyone?

I’ll never advocate for time-out. While the empirical evidence is strong in the lab, life isn’t as straightforward, and the way time out is implemented in practice is probably doing more harm than good. And the moral and philosophical arguments against it are compelling. 

I’m realistic enough to acknowledge that we all have our struggles and challenges, and sometimes a circuit-breaker is needed..

But time-in, working together to understand and find solutions, will always be a preferred option to me. 

TL;DR

Evidence clearly supports the use of time-out as a useful discipline strategy for parents so long as it’s implemented properly and for the right reason - which it rarely is. But working with our children to explore, explain, and empower, is undeniably a better way to discipline our children.


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