Timeouts are disciplinary measures used by some parents to manage their kids’ misbehaviors. Unfortunately, they have been widely misunderstood and frequently misused.
What is a timeout?
Children psychologists define timeout as the removal of a child from all types of reinforcement, such as parents’ attention, toys, or playtime, for a specified, short period as a consequence for misbehavior. It involves sending a child who has done something wrong to sit alone for a set period of time, usually not longer than 1 minute.
The myths surrounding timeout
1. Timeout is an escape and children don’t mind it: False. Timeout is not a way for a child to escape a specific activity in order to have a good time. Children, just as adults, dislike being excluded or removed. They don’t like timeout and want it to be over as soon as possible. If you turn to timeouts, keep them short (2 minutes max).
2. Timeouts automatically result in good behavior: Wrong. Timeouts are only a tool that interrupts undesired behavior. They don’t promote good behavior but are meant to stop bad behavior. Short timeouts can be effective if they are used consistently and as a part of a discipline plan that reinforces the desired behavior. Sporadic or long timeouts that don’t come as a response to disruptive behavior are just confusing and can make things worse.
3. Timeouts allow the child to think about what they have done: Unfortunately, no. In order for a child to reflect on their behavior, timeout alone is not enough. The aim of a timeout is to immediately stop misbehavior or remove the child from all reinforcement. If you want the child to learn to reflect, look into your child’s eyes and explain that you personally don’t like what has happened. Personal reasons, such as “I don’t like when you hit others” work much better than an abstract statement such as “hitting others is unacceptable”
4. The amount of time for the timeout matches the seriousness of the misbehavior: While giving longer timeouts might satisfy your sense of justice, it does not help in changing the misbehavior that led to the timeout. The sole purpose of a timeout is to stop reinforcing the wrong behavior at that moment. Keep timeout short, 2 minutes max.
5. You can use timeouts to show a child who’s in charge: No. Timeouts help break the child away from the bad behavior at that moment — they are not about exerting your will over the child. If you are trying to change a child’s behavior, spend time with your child, model good behavior and positively reinforce it if you see your child follow your lead.
6. It’s fine to physically force my child to do a timeout: Physically restraining or forcing your child to do timeout is wrong and defeats the aim of the timeout. It gives the child attention, which reinforces the wrong behavior. Remember, the essence of a timeout is to create a break in reinforcement.
Ketsupa Jirakarn (Mental health specialist) (31 March 2021)