Finally! Meaningful Guidelines for Using Time-out

New research offers comprehensive understanding of time-out with children.

Posted Oct 28, 2019

“Sometimes he gets me so angry. He knows better but he does it anyway. This time he grabbed the crayons from his sister and when she yelled, he made marks on her drawing. He does things like that often. So I gave him a time-out. “

“Could you describe exactly what you did when you gave him a time out?”

“First, I yelled at him for not being respectful of his sister. Then I walked him to his room.”

“And then?”

“I had him sit in a chair that faces the corner. I told him he had to sit there for thirty minutes and that he should think about why he did it.”

The above conversation is one I had with Mrs. Lane, who described how she sometimes disciplined Ben, her six-year-old son. It is similar to many descriptions of using time-out that I have heard from parents over my years as a clinician. They used this approach even when it seemed to have little lasting impact. Additionally, many parents indicated great inconsistency in their use of this approach for discipline.  

The use of time out as part of a repertoire for discipline derives from the research in behavioral psychology. They are rooted in studies of reinforcement and punishment performed by B.F. Skinner, a noted psychologist and behaviorist. The use of time-out is based on the premise that children are motivated to engage socially, in play and in other activities. Time-out entails withdrawing the opportunity for attaining such rewards in order to punish negative behaviors.

While the use of discipline-based on reinforcements and punishments can be a meaningful and powerful aspect of parenting, these strategies are not simple and require greater understanding of when and how to implement them. The use of time-out alone, in most cases, ignores many important aspects of both child emotional development as well as the broader use of discipline in general. 

From early in my career, I concluded that a child placed in time-out might be prone to develop a sense of rejection and isolation that fail to support insight. It fails to help a child to understand his feelings that contribute to his negative behavior, nor how to comfort himself with the tension they trigger. Instead, time-out might allow for the development of repetitive self-talk that often reflects anger or resentment-rather than genuine self-reflection leading to more constructive behaviors. 

Parents can’t control for how a child interprets such punishment. This is especially the case when the discipline is also presented in the context of heightened emotion, including anger. It increases the anxiety that at times is much too intense for a child to effectively manage. And, real problem solving is most constructive when it arises out of a feeling of calmness and safety. Time-out may at times be effective in the short term but it can fracture a parent-child bond in the long term. So, while time-out may be used to help a child to learn to pause and reflect, such isolation often had the capacity to hinder self-soothing.

123rf/Stock Photo/Luis Molinero Martnez
A mother signaling "time-out"
Source: 123rf/Stock Photo/Luis Molinero Martnez

So it was with great joy that I read a recent study regarding new guidelines for the use of time-out as part of disciplining a child (Dadds and Tully, 2019). This study helped to identify an approach through the exploration of models of learning, attachment theory, self-regulation and family systems theory. The findings highlight a more comprehensive understanding and implementation for the use of time out. It identifies how the constructive use of time-out can enhance a child’s overall well being. Viewed in this manner, time out is considered as form of discipline that should reflect healthy parenting in general. 

Understanding time-out through the lens of learning theory

The authors emphasize that parents who model calm reactions to conflict:  

1. help to reduce the likelihood of the inappropriate behavior recurring, 

2. prevent the escalation of recurring parent-child conflicts,

3. model calm soothing interactions, 

4. strengthen positive behaviors, 

5. increase a child’s sense of agency, and

 6. limit discipline strategies to child behaviors that are not accidental or based in fear.

This is consistent with the notion that responding with anger or anxiety to an infant, child, teen or adult poses a sense of threat–with an accompanying sense of physical tension. Such a threat fosters emotional reactions rather than thoughtful reflection and problem solving that are supported by calmness. With regard to caretaking, modeling such calmness, in turn, further enhances a child’s sense of a secure attachment with his or her parents.

Understanding time-out through the lens of attachment theory

Years of study have found that the style of attachment we experience as adults is powerfully influenced by the early patterns of interactions with our caretakers (Brennan, Clark and Shaver, 1998). When a child experiences overall consistency, presence, availability, and warmth from her caretaker, she may become an adult who has a secure attachment style. This allows for a sense of internal security, trust and a healthy ability for commitment in relationships as an adult. 

By contrast, when a child’s caretakers are inconsistent in their presence, caring, and nurturance, she will develop an insecure attachment style as an adult. This is reflected by an intense desire for connection and–even when it is achieved–great anxiety that it will end. Additionally, an individual may develop an avoidant insecure attachment style, one that is marked by avoiding closeness and connection.

I’ve observed in my practice that many adults who have experienced an insecure attachment style are more prone to anger. They often lack the capacity for self-soothing characterized by individuals who have developed in the context of more secure attachment interactions. Children who are secure are able to more easily separate to be on their own and explore their world. They can be more independent, self-soothing and regulating. These capacities derive from the early secure relationship that fostered trust, security and through early calming interactions, the physiological capacity for greater self-soothing.

As such, this study emphasizes that effective discipline “does not threaten, and preferably strengthens, the parent-child bond, thereby increasing each person’s capacity for more successful attachments more generally." (2019) With regard to the use of discipline, using time-out should parallel daily interactions that foster secure attachment.

Understanding time-out through the lens of self- and emotional regulation

Consistent with the ultimate goal of healthy emotional development, discipline in general, and the use of time-out specifically, should address and strengthen a child’s capacity to pause rather than react to his or her experiences. This capacity entails building self-control, that includes behavioral regulation and emotional regulation, both of which require skills in self-soothing.

Toward achieving this outcome, the methods of discipline in general, and time-out approaches should enhance a child’s capacity for self-regulation. In effect, such practices support the strengthening the cognitive skills for such regulation. As I like to say, such approaches help children to strengthen the ability of their thinking brain to override the tendencies of their emotional brain.

Understanding time-out through the lens of family and systems theory

Finally, the findings of the study reviewed here, emphasize that discipline should be consistent with the values and morals of the family and culture. This context offers greater input in determining that such discipline is fair, reasonable and acceptable. 

Implications for constructive guidelines for the use of time-out

The following are some key guidelines supported by the above concerns in an effort to enhance a child’s positive mental health:

1. Time-out should be used to address behaviors over which a child has control and not behaviors that derive from a lack of ability to perform an action, lack of understanding, mistakes or fear.

2. The effectiveness of the time-out should be assessed in terms of its success in reducing problem behaviors.

3. Parental implementation of time out should reflect a positive role model of calm and attached-secure interaction.

4. Time-out should be viewed as part of a larger emphasis on promoting a warm and rewarding relationship that helps a child to identify positive behaviors in lieu of problem behaviors.

5. The use of time-out should reflect attention toward supporting a healthy secure attachment in which the child is helped to feel safe, valued and loved.

6.  The child’s demonstration of self-soothing should be a determining factor for terminating the time-out.

7. Discipline strategies should focus on improving a child’s capacity for regulating his behavior and emotions. This calls for teaching a child specific skills in self-soothing.

8. The child should be informed of the very specific behaviors that are deemed problematic or inappropriate.

9. The use of time-out should reflect the family and cultural values, and

10. Time-out should be equally and similarly practiced with all children within a family and also relevant to their development levels.

Conclusion

Parenting is a daunting challenge. As such it makes perfect sense that many parents might practice the use of time out in the same manner reported by Mrs. Lane. It is easy and reactive but limited and even detrimental in its impact. As such, we should be extremely grateful for the guidelines identified by the above study. They address the larger picture surrounding the complexity of using time-out. In doing so, they offer parents meaningful and constructive approaches for helping to enhance a child’s positive emotional well-being. These require reflection and commitment and, in the long term, further help to strengthen parents' connections with their children.   

References

Dadds, M. and Tully, L. (2019). What is it discipline a child: What should it be? A reanalysis of a time-out from the perspective of child mental health, attachment and trauma. American Psychologist, Vol. 74(7), 798-808.

Brennan, K., Clark, C., and Shaver, P. (1998). Self-report measurement of adult attachment: An integrative overview. In J. Simpson and W. Rholes (Eds.) Attachment theory and close relationships. New York: Guilford Press.