Will Time-Outs Change My Child’s Behaviour?
Should I Use a Time-out To Discipline My Child?
As a counsellor, one of the most common questions I get about discipline and toddlers is: “Should I use a time-out to change my toddlers behaviour?”
Using time-outs is a strategy that parents have used for years! It is much more gentle than physical punishment such as spanking. But the question remains: Do time-outs work?
What is the purpose of the time-out?
Before talking about if time-outs are effective at reducing the challenging behaviour you see in your home, we need to think about “What is the purpose of a time-out?” I think most parents would agree that the purpose would be to discipline challenging behaviour, and reduce the frequency of this behaviour. Most parents don’t have a goal to punish behaviour. Instead our goal is to teach new skills, connect with children, and help nurture children to grow up to be adults who can solve problems and self-regulate.
Further, to discipline means to disciple or to teach. The goal of discipline should be teaching our child new ways of coping or new skills so that they can better handle difficult situations or behaviour.
When do time-outs work?
According to the research time-outs SOMETIMES can be an effective form of discipline. Time-outs that are effective look like: A set agreement between parent and child where the child knows that the expectation for a specific behaviour would be taking a break (leaving the situation), calming down, and then coming back to the parent to resolve the issue. They would be used very infrequently, and the child would know the expectations ahead of time.
For example: “I know that sometimes it’s really hard not to yell at your sister when she gets in your space. Next time you are yelling I am going to ask you to take a little break so that you can calm down. After you take a break we will connect again with your sister.” In this situation, the child knows what the expectation is ahead of time, and knows what the plan will be if they engage in the behaviour. The time-out is not being given in the heat of the moment and instead is being planned.
When do time-outs not work?
Unfortunately, time-outs are often given in the heat of the moment. Instead of being discipline (teaching the child a new skill), children end up remembering that their parents got them in trouble. The research would show that most often kids don’t remember the behaviour, and only remember the punishment. This means instead of helping the child realize the connection between their behaviour and a consequence and learning a new skill, they may only remember mom and dad getting mad, or how annoying mom and dad must be because they gave a time out.
One study done by the National Institute of Mental Health showed that although time-outs may help toddlers and children cooperate in the moment, they do not create long term change. This is because the timeout is not a natural consequence for the behaviour. So the child may remember the time-out, how it felt to have a time-out, what the time-out looked like, but they may not remember WHY they had a time-out. More importantly, they have not learned new skills that will teach them how to navigate their big emotions next time.
Can time-outs lead to more challenging behaviour?
The short answer is: Yes! Other research has shown that time-outs can actually reinforce challenging behaviour.
For example: Think about a child who is sent to the principal’s office every time they act out in school. It seems like a natural time-out. However, what if the reason the child acts out is because they don’t understand the work being given to them? Or they have a problem with a peer in the classroom? Or they are bored in the class? Sending them to the principal’s office every time they misbehave is not teaching the child a new way to ask for help, support, or new work. Instead, the time-out is actually reinforcing their escaping behaviour. So the next time the work is hard in class, they will act out, be sent to office, and the cycle of behaviour will continue.
This is similar to a child acting up every night after preschool. Picture this: You get home, place a demand on them like “help mommy set the table”, and they LOSE IT. Before you know it, they are in a full blown tantrum, and you respond by sending them to a time-out. What actually happens though is they escape the demand to help you set the table. So, the next time they are feeling tired, overwhelmed, and don’t have the energy to set the table, the same situation will likely occur.
What can we do instead of time-outs?
1. Build in breaks
Personally, I love the idea of breaks. I think we ALL need breaks in our day to help us calm down and be able to manage all of the demands that we have in life. I like the idea of building these in before the behaviour happens instead of after. Preventative parenting over responsive parenting.
An example of this may look like building “calming times” into your child’s day. Specifically, if you know a certain time of day that is tough like after school (the after school meltdown is REAL), build in a break right after school. Let your child choose something they can do very quietly for half an hour after school so they can unwind and relax.
2. SET the stage for success
Before reacting to behaviour, consider how you SET the stage for success: Sleep, Eat, Time.
Sleep: Is your child running on enough sleep? Is it possible the behaviours are happening because they are simply tired? If it is because they are tired, consider how they can have some time to rest before reacting to the behaviour.
Eat: When is the last time your child had something to eat? I don’t know about you, but when I am hungry I am HANGRY (hungry and angry). Kids get this way too. Before thinking about punishing the behaviour, consider whether or not they are hungry.
Time: What has your child’s time looked like today? Often, kids get overstimulated when we have too many activities going on in one day. Consider whether your child may have had too much going on today, or if there is something that happened during the day that is impacting their behaviour. Consider connecting with them about this.
3. Consider what skills may help decrease the behaviour
We want to teach children the skills that they need so that they don’t have to engage in the challenging behaviour to get their need met. Consider what is going on before the time out. Is your child yelling to get your attention? Maybe they can practice appropriately asking for your attention. Are they hitting their sibling? Maybe they can practice communication skills that tell their sibling to stop touching them. Maybe they can practice walking away when their sibling is annoying them. Always be thinking about what skills may help your child get the same need met without having to do the challenging behaviour.
4. Catch the behaviour you want to see
When our children engage in challenging behaviour, we often focus our time and energy on punishing and disciplining the challenging behaviour. This makes sense, as it is a natural response to be worried about our child’s behaviour!
However, a more effective way of changing behaviour is to focus our time and energy on the behaviour that we want to be seeing. This means noticing the (sometimes very small) instances where our children are doing the behaviour we want to see.
5. Model the Behaviour You Want To See
Find places in your day where you can show your child the behaviour you want them to be doing. Show your child how you talk through your feelings. “Mommy is feeling very upset right now, I am going to take some deep breaths.” “Mommy is feeling like there is too much noise, I am going to take a break,” Use natural opportunities to show your child how to respond in healthy ways to big feelings throughout the day.
6. Focus on Natural Consequences for Behaviour.
We want kids to know that there are consequences for their behaviours. It is important to tie the behaviour with the consequence. For example: Fighting over toy with sibling may mean losing access to that toy for a certain amount of time. Yelling at mom and saying rude things may mean a conversation with mom about how this conversation hurt her feelings and how to get your point across in a more gentle way. Instead of removing ourselves in times of difficult behaviour we want to stay connected with our child, and use challenging behaviours as learning opportunities.
There are so many more things to say about time-outs and how to use more effective strategies that will not only help teach your child new behaviours but connect you and your child on a deeper level. If you are interested in more grace-filled discipline leave a comment below!
Check out these posts for parenting tips related to behaviour:
- How to Stop Yelling at Your Kids
- Tips on Getting Your Kids To Listen
- How to Create Positive Behaviour in Kids
[i] Chapman, Michael and Zahn-Wexler, Carolyn. “Young Children’s Compliance and Noncompliance to Parental Discipline in a Natural Setting.” International Journal of Behavioral Development 5 (982): p. 90.
[ii] Hoffman, Martin. (1970) “Moral Development.” In Carmichael’s Manual of Child Psychology, 3rd ed., volume 2, edited by Paul H. Mussen. New York: Wiley.