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Should I Use Time Out To Discipline My Children?

boy sitting alone - are time outs bad
Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Are you confused about the use of time out in discipline? This post examines why time out does not work and what makes it more effective.

If you are a parent of a young child, you may wonder if time out is now an outdated parenting technique. You may have even read online that time out does more harm than good. This post is an attempt to address these issues.

Do time outs damage kids?

Many parenting experts and platforms are currently discouraging parents from using time out. Their argument is that time out shames kids for acting up and sends the message that they are not allowed to have or express big feelings. These professionals believe that sending a child to time out can have negative outcomes down the road.

Current research, however, does not seem to back this up. Pediatric psychologists followed children from age 3 to age 11 and found that children whose parents used time outs were at no greater risk for developing depression, anxiety, or aggression than parents who never used time out. No matter how they looked at the data, they were not able to find that time outs caused any direct harm.

Are we doing time outs all wrong?

Time outs may not be causing any harm, but in most cases, they are not that effective. This is likely because studies have found that 85% of parents are using time outs incorrectly. Objectively speaking, a child sitting in a corner to “think about what he did” until a kitchen timer rings cannot affect change. We can do better.

Let’s explore some things that make time outs less effective and how Christian parents can use them to create opportunities for discipleship.

1) Time out is ineffective when used as a punishment

It’s not just semantics. Punishment and discipline are not the same. Punishment focuses on control, domination and retribution. Discipline focuses on training, shaping and teaching.

Isolation cannot affect change in and of itself. Our kids are not able to “think about” what they did in any constructive manner because they do not developmentally have the executive brain function to support this activity.

Yelling at a child will also render a time out ineffective.

2) Time out is not effective without “time in”

Time in is simply quality, interactive, relational opportunities between a parent and a child. Time in (or connection) is vital to the parent-child relationship. All discipline is more effective in the context of a warm, loving and restorative environment.

3) Time out is not effective on children younger than age 3

Prior to age three, redirection, distraction, and removal are more effective tools for discipline. Most very young children do not have the cognitive ability to be trained by a time out in response to a misbehavior. Your consistent, firm and loving actions are much more effective at this younger age.

4) Time out is not effective when focused on time

Most parents send their children to time out, set the timer for the number of minutes the child is old and when it rings, the child resumes his or her activities. When used in this manner, time outs are ineffective because, again, isolation and the passage of time are not restorative and have no component of training.

5) Time out is not effective when parents engage with their child during them

If you speak to, physically move, or otherwise engage with your child during time out, you will prolong the process and limit its effectiveness. Children in time out need a parent near and present, but that parent needs to be neutrally disengaged (no harsh looks, no hands on hips, no bargaining with the child).

How to use time out effectively

If a time out is used with the pitfalls outlined above, they will not be effective. However, if parents incorporate the following elements, time outs can be an important tool in your parenting tool belt.

1) Think of time out as a “reset”

Time out is not really the crux of your parenting intervention. The real work happens once the time out is completed. The purpose of the time out is to offer your child the opportunity to reset their day and examine what proceeded it.

However long it takes your child to decide that they are ready for a fresh start is how long it lasts. He may quickly re-group and announce that he is ready to talk. If this is the case, the time out is over. But if your child is still agitated and is displaying a hard heart, even if he says he is ready, he will need more time. You can simply say, “I will know you are ready when you are calm and quiet.”

2) Use time out judiciously

Time outs are most effective when used to correct overt misbehavior (such as hitting, disrespect, yelling, chronic non-compliance) rather than accidents or unintentional behaviors (such as knocking over a glass of juice or hurting someone accidentally).

Other interventions can often be more appropriate than a time out. For example, if your child throws a ball in the house after a warning not to, it can be just as effective (maybe more so) to give the ball a time out rather than the child. However, if you child tries to find more things to throw in opposition to the natural consequence, a time out is in order.

3) Talk about how you will use time out

It’s important to discuss with your child how time out will be used in your family when misbehavior is not an issue. You can explain it in a way that is developmentally appropriate. A possible script might be, “I will give you a warning, if you choose to disobey, I will ask you to go to sit on the stairs. I will know you are ready to talk about it and then carry on with your day when you are calm and quiet.”

4) Always connect after a time out

It is important to connect with your child at the end of the time out to discuss what happened, hug them, pray with them and address ways to make amends, if necessary. For Christian parents, restoration is always the goal of a time out.

Time out can create space for a child’s heart to become soft – which is a perfect opportunity for discipleship. You can talk about what was done, why it was wrong and what tools and skills he might need in order to improve in this area. Problem solve together with a curious, compassionate mindset.

5) Provide your child with tools to self-soothe

I am listing this last, but it is probably most important. If your child has no ability to self-soothe, placing him in time out will likely be a stressful and prolonged experience for everyone involved. You can teach and model self-soothing techniques when your child is calm and receptive. Your child may find that hugging his legs helps him calm. Or maybe smelling a favorite scent. Try different ideas and consider keeping a picture list near your time out spot (images are better than words, not just for pre-readers, but for anyone who is dysregulated).

Additional thoughts

You know your child best. If your child has attachment issues or a trauma history, time out may not be an effective method. It could be triggering. Or if your child struggles with hyperactivity, being “calm” to signal the end of the time out may not be realistic. You will have to adjust your expectations and methods according to your unique child and his needs. If you need help doing this, parent counseling might be helpful.

Time out is not the holy grail of parenting. But it’s not a weapon of mass destruction either. No child comes with an owners manual and much of what we do as parents is trial and error. You can trust God to lead you to what will work for you and your family.

More tips on how to use time outs with kids:

How to handle a child who won’t stay in time out

A better way to time outs – Tips for Christian Parents

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed therapist who offers individual and parent counseling to residents of Connecticut. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married with a young adult son and a teenage daughter.

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