Time-out not working? You're probably doing it wrong

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock 

Time-out as a form of discipline for young children has long been a point of contention among parents and experts. Some experts, such as the Super Nanny Jo Frost, swear by the approach, while others think it's cruel and ineffective.

But the University of Sydney has just shared some new research that shows time-out is highly effective, but it comes with a massive caveat: only if you're doing it correctly.

Professor Mike Dadds of the Child Behaviour Research Clinic at Sydney University says he's found time-outs to be one of the most effective discipline strategies.

"In 30 years, we've treated thousands of kids with disruptive behaviour," he said. "When we use time-out as part of a positive parents program, kids are much happier and much more regulated."

In modern parenting, the Super Nanny brought time out into the spotlight in 2004, encouraging parents to have their children sit on a "naughty" chair or step, and then have them apologise for their behaviour, before welcoming them back with affection. 

But in 2014, Time magazine published an article calling into question the time-out method, with the authors claiming neuroplasticity research proved time-out was harmful to children. (The authors later recanted much of that article.)

Professor Dadds said time-outs also developed a negative reputation because people were misusing it, isolating their children and/or withdrawing love or attachment in the process.

So what is the correct way to manage time-outs to gain the best results?

Paediatric psychologist Amanda Abel says it's important to use it as part of a larger strategy.


"Time-out is best used as a planned parenting strategy where house rules and expectations have been discussed with the child and clear consequences for both positive and challenging behaviours have been outlined," she says.  

"It should be used alongside positive, or proactive, parenting strategies like labelled praise and reward charts if needed.

Abel says successful time out should be used to remove a child from a situation rather than as punishment. 

"Time Out is based on the premise of removing a child who is displaying unsafe behaviours, in order to prevent them from hurting themselves or others; and also it is designed to remove them from a potentially 'rewarding' or 'reinforcing' environment (such as getting attention from those around them) which can inadvertently maintain the behaviour," she says.

A common mistake parents make, Abel says, is not explaining what the time out is for.

"Time-out for challenging behaviour that has been clearly explained and is behaviourally based is an effective strategy - NOT based on emotional factors (for example, "you hit your brother, you need to go to time out" is acceptable, but "you're crying, you need to go to time-out" is not okay)," she says.

"My biggest concern with time out is when parents use it because they feel uncomfortable with their child's display of 'big' feelings. Often our kids' emotions will make us feel uncomfortable and we need to make sure we are responding to our kids in a way that is best for them, and not about making us feel better about our own discomfort."

Abel recommends parents try to be perceptive about their children's emotions to assess whether time-out is the right move.

"The challenge with time-out is that parents need to be able to clearly read their child's emotional state," she says. 

If their child is acting out behaviourally and is in full control of their behaviour, time-out is a helpful teaching strategy and consequence.

However, if a child is overwhelmed with their big feelings, and has lost all control, they are going to benefit more from connecting with their parent in a meaningful way whereby the parent acknowledges the FEELINGS the child is having and helps them to calm down. Following on from this, and sometimes much later, a consequence can be applied.

"You can't learn to swim when you're drowning, and I believe kids can't learn to manage their behaviour if they are out of control and overwhelmed by their feelings. Their brain needs a chance to slow down and be able to take on new information – or in this case, to learn from a behavioural consequence. 

Abel says it helps if parents remember these tips when using time-out:

  • Always have a rationale for why you are using it. 
  • Talk to your child first about what types of behaviours will lead to time out. 
  • Always have other options to use for 'lower level' behaviours such as removing screen time for a small period of time and keep time out for dangerous or aggressive behaviours. 
  • Think about how you will manage these behaviours when you're out and about and time out isn't possible. 
  • Explain the reason for using time out and where it will take place, and how long for. 
  • Don't put a child in time out for more than a few minutes. 
  • Always consider it from your child's perspective and think about what they are learning from it.