Time Out on Time Outs

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Time outs have endured as a go-to method for parents who are faced with behavior issues in their kids. I have encountered many parents who have a plan for how to make time outs work, and though I’m not sure where the rules come from (magazine articles? TV nannies? Other parents? Those are my best guesses), they all seem to agree on the basics.

Here are “the rules” of the time out as I have seen them in action:

  • Remove the child from the situation and coax, compel or simply place the child in a particular spot.
  • Instruct the child to remain there for a fixed amount of time—generally one minute per year of age (again, not sure from where this formula comes, specific as it is).
  • Following the time out, usually immediately after it’s over, talk to the child about why it was they were placed in time out.

The goal here, presumably, is that the child will make a connection between the discipline and the behavior it prompted. Unfortunately, it often does not work out that way. Here are some things I have observed about time outs as performed in this manner:

  1. If there are other children present, they are not getting the supervision or attention they would otherwise be getting, and are recruited by circumstance as spectators to the behavior and the power struggle that ensues. The other children are thus more likely to emulate the targeted behavior, if only because they see that it’s an excellent way to gain attention from a parent and to “stop the show.”
  2. And it does become a power struggle, as inevitably the child in question does not wish to be placed in time out and will resist (screaming, becoming aggressive, dropping to the floor, or simply leaving the designated area). I once heard this advice directed at teachers, and I think it applies just as well to parents: “If you enter a power struggle with a child, regardless of the outcome, you have already lost.”
  3. With small children, there is a real disconnect between the behavior incident that prompted the time out and the intervention itself; especially if it becomes a prolonged affair that leads to more acting out and further reaction from the parent. The time out may serve the function of removing the child from the situation, but there is little chance that they will understand why one thing lead to another, and be able to correct the behavior.
  4. The reason for this is that a time out, as described above, is neither a natural consequence (if you go outside without your jacket, you will be cold) nor a logical one (if you hit your sister with that stick, it will be taken away). It’s just too abstract, and the child is no longer in the moment. They will likely not come away with the lesson you intended. This is played out in the simple fact that parents tend to give time outs repeatedly for the same behaviors, and often in the same situations (where a likely explanation for the behavior is that the child is hungry, or tired, or having difficulty with a particular activity or transition).
  5. One thing I frequently observe is that after a child has been given a time out they are given special time with the parent to reconnect and enjoy some positive attention. I think that this is probably the best possible outcome. It is also probably what the child needed in the first place. Since time outs require time and effort from the parent, why not be proactive and take time to allow that connection to happen beforehand? You may find that the behavior—which is nearly always an unmet need that the child can’t otherwise express—does not happen nearly as often.
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