Experts say that time-outs may be 'damaging' to kids - do they work for you?
My first exposure to time-outs was via Channel 4's Super Nanny in the noughties.
It's a simple discipline technique where a child is told to sit on a step, or go to their room for a set number of minutes — usually one minute per year of age. After that, there's a brief discussion about what happened and how to improve next time and that, on paper, is that.
Time-outs soon became all the rage. The telly parenting expert had kids all over the UK sitting on their parent's carpeted stairs, while she spoke to them like they hadn't met their sales target for the quarter — and everyone at home followed suit.
I saw the show again recently and a lot of what she practiced now seems quite dated, perhaps because gentle parenting is now the more widely televised approach.
My son is only one, so he's a little away from me having to do any of this stuff (he'd just laugh and throw something at my head, I imagine), but lots of my friends still use the technique, with mixed results I'm told.
But what to experts make of the method?
David Rettew is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. In his book Parenting Made Complicated: What Science Really Knows about the Greatest Debates of Early Childhood, he has his say:
"For years, parents have turned to the time-out as the appropriate response. Then all is forgiven. Lately, however, the time-out has come under fire for being too harsh or even 'damaging'. An increasing cadre of experts now advocate for “time-ins” when a child misbehaves—especially if it involves a child becoming really upset with crying and yelling.
"With a time-in, the parent actively engages and soothes the child before having that same debriefing talk, rather than chastising them for the behavior and leaving them to cool down on their own. The process involves suspending judgement for how ridiculous the trigger for the meltdown often seems (perhaps the blue cup is in the dishwasher and only the yellow one is available, for example) and reframing the negative behaviour: maybe it’s not a child’s deliberate strategy to manipulate you, but instead, it’s their developmentally young brain getting overwhelmed. They really are doing their best.
"When it comes to harms associated with time-outs, there has been some high-profile criticism of the technique, suggesting that it may result in developmental “damage.”
"Time-outs require a couple things to be effective. First, the child needs to have some degree of control over their behaviour so that the unpleasant aspects of the time-out serve as a deterrent for the next similar situation. Time-outs work on motivation, but all the motivation in the world doesn’t help if the child really can’t control their emotions or behaviour in the first place.
"Second, time-outs can be quite effective when a child is misbehaving out of an attempt to get attention because it teaches the child that this “ploy” won’t work, and that attention instead will be withheld when he acts this way. But if attention-seeking isn’t what is driving the misbehaviour to begin with—maybe they really are just having a rough time—then a key assumption for why you’re using time-outs doesn’t apply.
"I don’t believe in the uncritical acceptance of discipline advice from one self-proclaimed parenting expert—it really depends on so many factors. So, instead, Step 1 may be thinking a bit more about your child’s temperament and hypothesizing what might be going on when your child engages in negative behaviour. You could even ask your child about this when he is in a good space. (“It seems like you were frustrated this morning during computer school. Is that why you slammed the laptop shut and threw your pencil? What was frustrating you?”)
"Maybe, for example, you decide on a hybrid approach for your five-year-old daughter in which you respond differently for different types of negative behaviour. When she absolutely loses it over having her iPad turned off when screen time is over, you are going to assume she really can’t do better and will try to coach her down in a warm and sympathetic way. If that doesn’t help, you might even encourage her to spend a few minutes in her room to calm down, but here the suggestion is not being used as time-out, per se, but rather as a technique to help her become regulated again.
"Kids are indeed different—your friend’s kids won’t necessarily behave like yours, and it’s not necessarily something you’re doing wrong or right. Even siblings within the same family may need individualized approaches.
"Parenting is indeed complicated. But fortunately, there are a couple things in our favour. First, we are not contractually obligated to blindly follow oversimplified recipes about parenting just because some online influencer tells us to.
"Second, perfection in parenting is neither possible, nor ideal—and that’s OK."