Some parents use timeouts to discipline a child for misbehavior. The goal is to stop unwanted behavior using 1-2 minute periods of zero social interactions. If timeouts are done right, they are effective to limit unwanted behavior.
However, since they are useless in encouraging the desired behaviors, parents who take a more holistic approach to training their children don’t often believe in them.
Why timeouts works
Decades of research have shown that well-intended attention can reinforce bad behavior. So, the logic behind the timeout technique is to create a brief break in all forms of attention — demands, explanations, threats, rewards, and others. By sending the child to sit alone from some time, you deny them the attention they were craving with their bad behavior.
The limitations of timeouts
However, while a timeout can stop the behavior at that moment, it may not prevent the child from engaging in the behavior in the future, as it doesn’t teach the child the behavior we want to see. Timeouts are, therefore, only able to help limit a problematic behavior, but they are ineffective in encouraging good behavior. Fortunately, there are ways you can make the timeout more effective.
How to make timeouts effective
For timeouts to be effective, do the following:
- Use sparingly: Timeouts should not be the only technique in your discipline plan, so don’t use them all the time. In fact, don’t give more than twice each day for the same misbehavior.
- Make the rules clear: Make it clear to your children beforehand what type of misbehavior will lead to a timeout. Then be consistent about using timeouts whenever such behavior occurs. Don’t repeatedly warn them about what will happen as warnings lose their effect if not followed by consequences.
- Start immediately: You need to start a timeout immediately after a problematic behavior occurs — delayed timeouts are ineffective.
- Isolate the child: The aim of the timeout is to isolate the child from any form of attention, as they can act as reinforcement and increase the possibility of the child repeating the behavior. So, make sure you send the child to a place where they won’t be able to interact with anybody. Research has shown that any form of attention — whether positive or negative — can increase the chances of the misbehavior occurring again.
- Do it calmly: Don’t raise your voice on the child after behaving badly, don’t get angry, don’t be rough. Do it calmly and in a friendly manner. It is necessary not to initiate a timeout out of anger or as an act of vengeance but as an expected response to the behavior.
- Make it brief: Studies have shown that the positive effects of timeouts on a child’s behavior are realized within the first one or two minutes. Any extra minutes do not have any added benefits in changing the behavior. So keep them as short as 60 seconds.
- Praise the child after completing a timeout: When your child spends the time at the isolated spot and completes the timeout without a fuss, praise that specific behavior: “It’s good you sat the whole time quietly in the corner — that’s great.” If possible, you can follow up the verbal praise with physical gestures, such as a gentle pat, high five, or other related gestures. It may feel strange to praise your child as part of discipline but bear in mind that actions followed by reinforcement tend to be strengthened and are more likely to occur in the future. The praise will make the child comply with timeouts again when necessary.
Timeout for young children
Children — especially those under 3 years old — do not yet have the ability to reflect on their own actions. This means that the goal of taking a break is not self-reflection but to provide a quiet place where children can move from a state of high agitation and upset to a sense of calm.
Alternatively, just ignore bad behavior
If a child is out of control but not harming anyone, it can be effective to just ignore the behavior for some time and then try to change the situation by moving the child’s attention to something else. Say a child is having a tantrum because you took away the sweets they were eating, acknowledge the anger, show empathy, and then, move on and take the child outside for a walk.
Ketsupa Jirakarn (Mental health specialist) (31 March 2021)