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Rethinking Time-Outs

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When the kicking, screaming and other tantrum-y behaviors start, the easy fix is often a threat (or an order) to go to time-out. But according to parenting expert Kimberley Clayton Blaine, author of the new book "The Go-To Mom's Parents' Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children," too many time-outs may be ineffective at best -- and downright harmful at worst. 

kid in timeout
Blaine says that young children simply don't understand the concept, and that kids who are subjected to repeated time-outs may develop poor emotional control because they are left alone without support and validation when they need it most.

"The misuse of a time-out is not only punishing but also alienating, and may spark a long-term physiological response," explains Blaine, a licensed family and child therapist and the mother of two boys. "In a worst-case scenario, they could internalize the emotional pain in order to cope, which can eventually turn into early-childhood depression. Empathy is truly the foundation for effective parenting, and it is also necessary in creating a stronger bond between parent and child. Time-outs are the antithesis of that." 

Blaine advocates an alternate method that takes into account a child's developmental limitations and that serves as guidance rather than punishment. For babies 2 and under, Blaine recommends distraction and redirection. At this age, your baby is simply too young to understand the concept of a thinking time; instead, give him a new item of interest or move him to an exciting location. 

For children over 2, she suggests using a "cool-down" or "thinking time" instead. Not only is this method gentle, it keeps the parent by the child's side to help him learn to calm himself down and think through what happened. Here's how to do it: 

  • Get down at your child's level. Be sure to maintain good eye contact; give a warning and ask if what he is doing is "OK or not OK." 
  • If your child doesn't calm down or stop the unacceptable behavior, then lead him to a "quiet area" or "thinking area." Sit with him and offer assistance and love. Remember, this is not a punishment. Be aware that time is not important; having your child calm down is. 
  • Disregard the "one minute times your child's age" rule. Don't give a 5-year-old five minutes to think; sometimes the older child needs only a minute or two to come up with a better solution. On the other hand, a younger child may need to cuddle or sit with you for ten minutes until he's calm. 
  • As you're sitting there, empathize, validate and reflect what you see. An understood child is less likely to be fraught. 
  • Once your child is calm, ask him to tell you what's wrong or what's going on. Restate the problem again more clearly if he has difficulty. 
  • Ask your child, "What will you do differently next time?" Name the expected behavior if he doesn't know. 
  • Thank your child for helping you come up with a solution. It's important that he hear this positive reinforcement. 
  • Set the expectation for the future by wrapping up with, "If you don't listen next time, what will happen?"
  • Inform your child that you will take actions to help and that you will not tolerate unacceptable behavior.
Moms, what do you think about this advice? Are you for or against time-outs?

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12 comments so far | Post a comment now
???? December 3, 2010, 6:05 AM

timeous are LAME!

Juicey December 3, 2010, 6:22 AM

I’ve always thought this. Time-outs for young children are just confusing. And for slightly older children, it just gives them time to brood and reflect on “how mean Mom and Dad are.”

Sara December 3, 2010, 6:41 AM

How exactly is a time out different from a cool down? Isn’t it exactly the same thing?

Sometimes children need negative punishments. Timeouts are a good way to handle that type of situation in an immediate time frame. It also teaches kids to leave a situation when they become out of control so they can calm down.

jane December 3, 2010, 9:39 AM

So you ask them “If you don’t listen next time, what will happen?”

And… what WILL happen? Another tender heart-to-heart chat about why it isn’t all right to bite other children or break dishes on purpose? Calmly asking them if they remember what you just talked about, and then quietly and lovingly asking them to please stop hitting mommy?

I’m sure going to jail hurts peoples’ feelings all the time, but sometimes you just need a time-out.

Katy December 3, 2010, 11:31 AM

I am a strong believer in what is being called “conscious discipline” these days. Children should be coached to behave properly and all of the advice above is good.

However, the problem I have is that the people who give this advice stop short and do not deal with the viscious attacking (hitting, biting, scratching, pinching, breaking things)that goes on when my child is mid-meltdown and it simply is not safe for me to sit near him.

We have mostly grown out of it now and the more in control I stayed and tried to get to the bottom the better off we were. But dang if I wasn’t left frazzled and unsure of what to do when he was putting me in physical danger.

Where is that advice?

KS December 3, 2010, 12:14 PM

HHMMM, This is rather funny advice to me. I was emotionally scarred as a child due to the horrific abuse I suffered from at the hands of my mother and her boyfriend. I know in a very intimate way what real abuse is and I can tell you a child sitting in a time out spot for 2 minutes is not it.

I think all this tossing around and labeling everything a parent does as child abuse is desensitizing us as a society to what real child abuse is and making parents afraid to discipline their children. Children need constant reinforcement from their parents. Parents need to punish their children for unacceptable behavior from the first time it happens until it stops by using means that wont emotionally scar them. Time outs is a way to do that.

Calling your child filthy names while hitting them with an extension cord is abuse and not the way to effectively discipline.

We have four boys and use time outs as our main discipline method. They also get to go sit on their beds, clean up their own messes, apologize in person when they have been inappropriate an so forth. Funny thing though, we can take them to any grocery store at any time without incident. They eat at any and all restaurants like civilized human beings (or they stand in the corner at said restaurant). They also all go to the playground and play with other children without hitting biting or any of the other common child hood violence that gets inflicted upon them by children. Children who are then talked to nicely and sent back to terrorize the other kids some more.

I think this Dr. probably needs to get out of her office and step into the real world of parenting for a bit before she tells one more parent they are abusing their children with time outs.

Heather December 3, 2010, 1:43 PM

Thank you KS!! I couldn’t have said it better!! Kids are becoming more and more out of control. Every so often some new professional comes out and tells society how the current for of discipline is destroying our children. I think she’s missing the point that its not the time outs that do the harm, it is how certain things are implemented and what a parent does afterwards that most likely determine the detriment. I plan on using time outs with my daughter. It will both give us a cool down period then, i can reassure her that she is loved and try to communicate with her as to the lesson. Trying to reason with your children is pointless, will result in more of a fight, and often times, over their capabilities of understanding.

Tina December 3, 2010, 5:52 PM

KS, brilliantly stated. Period.

mountainmommy December 3, 2010, 7:59 PM

time out = child abuse?? Are you kidding me? So whats left, just let our kids run wild, for fear of hurting their feelings? What is going to happen to all these kids when they grow up and they have a job and a boss and the boss hurts their feelings? Will mommy still be there to sort it all out?

klb December 4, 2010, 11:00 AM

I think the article fails to clarify that tantrums and misbehavior are two different things. When my child had tantrums at the 2-3 years old, I had a giant box of stuffed animals that I would put her in with until she calmed down. Then we would talk about being upset and “not getting her way”. It worked really well for us and I didn’t have to worry about being hit, kicked, etc. Now that she is older and no longer having tantrums, we use timeouts for bad behavior, ie. when she is doing something she knows she is not supposed to do. Timeouts worked for me quite well when I was a child and if it is in front of a clock, well, it certainly helps with learning to tell time! :) I also think KS has said it best, let’s lay off the term child abuse unless it is truly warranted.

Anonymous December 6, 2010, 5:48 AM

Time outs are the reason we have a generation of self-entitled spoiled brats. “What will you do next time” - exactly the same thing because there is NO punishment to a time out. It allows the child to do as they please and then they are just told to sit and think about what they did. What happened to real punishments?

Catherine January 10, 2011, 3:00 AM

This article is absolute hogwash. The most effective way to change a young child’s behavior is to consistently demonstrate that you will not reinforce bad behavior by spoiling and coddling them when they engage in it. The more you attend to a misbehaving child, the longer and more frequently they will misbehave. The goal is to allow the child to figure out how to control their own behavior and calm themselves. If Mom is right there with endless attempts to soothe and placate, the child has no opportunity to develop SELF control and is deprived of a sense of mastery. Even the youngest child will soon choose pleasant behavior if that gets them attention and nasty behavior doesn’t. For a step-by-step guide to effective time-outs, see Supernanny Jo Frost’s book. The earlier children learn that there are consequences for bad behavior, the more peaceful your home will be, and hence the community, the country and the world.

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