Chapter 28: The Myths of Timeouts and Why They Aren’t Even a Discipline Tool
Did you notice the last chapter didn’t mention two tools parents commonly use to discipline?
One was spanking, because spanking does not fit the 4 R’s — and can never fit the 4 R’s, because hitting others is disrespectful. It is a form of “corporal punishment,” not an “effective discipline” tool, so it didn’t meet the criteria for being included.
While spanking can get children to obey out of fear, countless studies have shown there are many possible negative long-term effects. Since you have dozens of other tools for preventing the need for discipline and for disciplining effectively, we won’t discuss spanking further.
(For more information on this topic and all aspects of discipline, including a summary of the most recent research on corporal punishment, watch my 3-part YouTube video series on Discipline (it’s a 35 min. interview/presentation I did on the Dayton (OH) Public Schools TV channel).)
The other tool you might have noticed was missing is time-out. A mother in one of my parenting classes said, “Time-outs have become this generation’s spanking.” What she meant was that when many parents were young, spanking was the main discipline tool. Parents used it as their only tool, for just about everything. Today, many parents know the problems with using spanking, so they’ve simply replaced spanking with time-out and continue to overuse and misuse it.
Most adults have the mistaken idea that the whole point of sending children to time-out is to make the child suffer for their misbehavior. “You go to your room (or chair) and think about what you did.” The tone of voice usually implies, “and you suffer.” Imposing suffering is punishment, not discipline, so it actually distracts the child from the lesson they need to be thinking about and can bring on the 4 R’s of punishment: resentment, rebellion, revenge and retreat.
Now for the big surprise — time-outs are not even a “discipline” tool; they are an effective anger-management tool that many people misuse and overuse for discipline. This is a completely different way of looking at time-outs than what most parents are used to.
Think of it this way: Time-outs are what you use to help you and your child calm down first, so you can deliver the discipline in a calm way and your child will be calm enough to learn the lesson from the discipline. Time-outs are not the discipline itself.
To use time-outs effectively, it is important to know when and how to use them appropriately. So here are eight suggestions that tie in the 4 R’s of Discipline and the Keep Your Cool Tools you’ve already learned:
- The purpose of a time-out is to help children regain control, so it is only logically related and appropriate to use them when the child has lost self-control or there is extremely disruptive behavior. If this is not the case, use one of the other discipline tools you have learned — or look at either the Prevention Toolbox or Keep Your Cool Toolset for ideas.
- Develop a plan in advance. Teach children during a happy time about the value of a cooling-off period. Then reveal the plan by saying, “When you feel like you’re going to lose control, you can go (specify the place) and do something to make yourself feel better. When you feel better, come back and we can work on a solution.”
- Present time-outs respectfully as a choice. A child can choose to settle down or take some time out. Suggest the time-out in a kind and firm manner, followed by the encouraging instructions to come back when the child is ready.
- Select a location for the time-out (where to go).
- If you force a child to stay in a chair or room, it shifts the focus from what they did and their responsibility for calming down to who is in power. This turns the time-out into a power struggle or punishment, which reduces its effectiveness.
- Choose the location based on the child’s recharge style (from the Keep Your Cool Toolset, Lesson 20). Children who are internal rechargers will calm down better if they are by themselves. Children who are external rechargers will get more upset when they are alone. These are the children who escalate or try to follow you around during traditional time-outs. These children can calm down while in the room with others, if they aren’t disruptive.
- Some parents hesitate to use a child’s room for fear the child will view the bedroom as a prison. If the time-out is initiated kindly and the goal is for the child to have some quiet time, children won’t see it as punishment. If the child might be destructive, it’s a sign the child has physical anger energy and their energy is literally “bouncing off the walls.” Let them go outside and run or throw a ball.
5. Teach children how to regain self-control (what to do). Suggest things the child can do to calm down while in time-out.
- Children who experience verbal anger energy will do well to be able to talk, sing, draw, or color while in time-out.
- Children who experience physical anger energy will have a hard time sitting still and need to be able to move. Giving them clay or drawing materials or even letting them go outside to “run out their angries” will help them calm down faster.
- Allow the child to be active or play. When children are angry, they often experience a build-up of physical energy. If they cannot disperse this energy constructively, it will explode destructively. If children start playing during time-out it shows that they have regained self-control and might be ready to do some problem solving.
- Avoid timers so the time limit is reasonable. Timers turn time-outs into power struggles. If children have calmed down but parents won’t let them out, children fall apart. Time-outs should end when children have regained self-control and agree to act appropriately. If children return before they are calm, describe the behavior you want to see and firmly but kindly return them to the time-out.
- When a time-out is over:
- If the child just needs to calm down, let it go and don’t call attention to their behavior.
- If the problem is serious or needs a solution or discipline, wait until both of you have calmed down and then use problem solving to discuss a solution.
Again, if you can view time-outs as the means by which the child can calm down and regain control so you can discuss the discipline, it will help children learn from their mistakes.
Think about your long-term goal. If you want children to learn self-control, using time-outs as cooling-off periods, instead of punishment, will teach children these skills.
- List situations or behaviors for which you might have used spanking or time-outs in the past.
- For each, ask is this the most appropriate, helpful and logically-related response.
- If you answer “no,” review the discipline tools (and other tools you’ve learned in this series) and list other options that might be better options. Think about the PASRR Formula and how you could prevent the problem or respond more helpfully.
- If you answer “yes,” that time-outs are the most appropriate response, do the following:
- Where to go to calm down. Would it help to be alone or not, inside or outside?
- Plan ahead. If your child is older, us problem-solving (in F-A-X Listening Toolset, lesson 18) or if your child is younger, teach them:
- What can they do to calm down? Use brainstorming. Would it help to do a calming activity or one that will help get the “angry energy” out?
- How to know when your child is calm? Describe the behaviors to look for, such as “breathing calmly,” “not crying,” “feeling happier.”
- When the need for a time-out arises next time, present taking a time-out as a choice. Then follow your plan and the guidelines above.
Here is a list of the recommended resources in this lesson:
- Download “The Report on Physical Punishment in the United States”
- Watch my 3-part YouTube video series on Discipline (35 min) for more details about the research on spanking and all aspects of discipline.