VICENZA, Italy (July 25, 2019) -- Time-outs can sometimes seem like the gold standard of discipline techniques. The strategy is presented as the effective -- and, importantly, super easy! -- approach to responding to your child's misbehavior. And for some, it works. But for the rest of us, that picture isn't exactly accurate. Let's break down how to successfully use time-outs to bring peace and growth to your household.
Easy? Your three-year-old misbehaves and to teach him that what he did was wrong you tell him to go sit in his time-out spot for three minutes. He calmly stops misbehaving, goes on his own to sit quietly in the time out chair where, for three minutes, he stays motionless without making a peep.
Oh wait, that doesn't happen in your house? Throw in some refusals to go to time-out, constant attempts to get up (after each of which you add time, making the struggle last even longer), whining, cajoling and more, and you've just turned what was supposed to be a clear-cut consequence for a specific misbehavior into a full-blown power struggle.
Effective? When the three minutes are up, your three-year-old gets up and says, "Thank you, I now understand the error of my ways and I will do better next time." Lesson learned. Here too, this is not likely to be the way things go in most families.
According to No Drama Discipline by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., "Ideally, time-outs are used infrequently and as an intentional strategy where the parent, who has discussed the idea with the child beforehand, pauses a difficult interaction and offers a time-out for a brief period (three to five minutes). Used in this way, time-outs have been proven in research studies to reduce child abuse."
So yes, they are effective -- and infinitely preferable -- if they replace harsher, more severe, forms of discipline. However, as the authors go on to say, "Instead of being used to create a teaching opportunity as part of an intentional, overall strategy to help kids learn to develop self-regulatory skills, too often parents make time-outs frequent and lengthy, and they become associated with humiliation and anger and punishment ... [which] frequently just makes children angrier and more dysregulated, leaving them less able to control themselves or think about what they've done."
Instead, to find a better way, start by asking yourself what your goal in attempting to use a time-out is. Are you looking to punish and inflict suffering on your children? In that case, the above situation is probably what you want. Or are you looking to correct misbehavior, teach better problem solving techniques, or "reset" an emotionally charged situation?
Effective time-outs can indeed be a break, an opportunity to refocus attention, a space to calm down from an intense emotional experience -- and can be used by both parents and children. In fact, time-outs can be a positive opportunity for learning and growth.
You can create a positive time-out by creating or providing a calm "time-out zone" with things that help your child feel safe and loved. Model using your own "calm zone" where you go to cool down. And, particularly when your child is in the throes of an intense emotional outburst, go with her to the time-out zone and give her the support she needs to exercise her fragile emotional regulation skills.
Then, once everyone is calm and ready to listen and problem solve, give children space to come up with better solutions themselves. You'll be surprised at what they think of. When a consequence is warranted, focus on finding the direct logical consequences from your child's behavior choices and, rather than imposing something irrelevant, allow him to experience those results.
With this change in focus, time-outs do end up being an easy and effective way to teach and support your children -- even in their worst moments.
Want to learn more? Come see the FAP Parent Educator at ACS. Call 646-5800 for information or to make an appointment for a personalized parenting advice and strategy session.
Editor's note: Vanderborght is Parent/Child Educator and Emergency Placement Care Coordinator, Family Advocacy Program, USAG Italy, Vicenza.