What’s the right way to give a time out?

Time outs are a familiar tool in a lot of parent toolboxes, but they may not always be the best way to manage behaviour.

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When Cindy Piazzo*’s daughter, Marley,* was four and would refuse to do a chore, the Thunder Bay, Ont., mom would send her to her room with the door open for a short time out. “It was a disaster—the biggest temper tantrum ever,” she says. “She would kick and scream uncontrollably.” Instead of dialling down the behaviour, the time out seemed to escalate it.

Time outs are a familiar tool in a lot of parent toolboxes: A child misbehaves, is removed from the situation and learns a lesson (hopefully). Time outs have been used for decades, but recently some experts have questioned whether they are effective or whether they are actually damaging to kids (for example, kids may feel excluded or frightened, may not learn about what behaviour is appropriate or may be acting out because they’re hungry or tired). Understandably, these concerns can leave parents feeling confused and asking themselves “Are time outs OK?”

It all comes down to the child and the situation. “If time outs are working for you, use them,” says Julie Freedman Smith, a Calgary-based parenting expert and co-author of A Year of Intentional Parenting. “They can be a great strategy.” But it’s crucial to remember the intent of a time out. “When kids are in an emotional state, it’s very hard for any problem-solving or learning to take place,” she explains. “We need to calm them down and get ourselves calmed down, too.” The power struggle comes when parents try to use time outs as punishments. Instead of fighting over the initial issue, they’re now fighting over staying in the room, on the chair or on the step, which can create a bigger issue than the initial misbehaviour.  

That was the case with Piazzo’s daughter. Piazzo took a parenting course to get some ideas for dealing with her daughter’s tantrums. She learned that, because Marley is an extrovert, being alone when she was upset felt like torture. Piazzo turned to other approaches, like telling Marley that a chore had to be done and it was up to her to coach herself into doing it or briefly taking away a favourite book or writing supplies, both of which worked much better—Marley may not have been happy about the situation, but the tantrums subsided. However, Piazzo uses time outs with her other kids, 10-year-old Eva* and nine-year-old Jackson*. “When they get on each other’s nerves, I’ll say ‘You two need to take a break in separate rooms,’” she explains. “It’s not as a threat or punishment; it’s a way to get everyone to recharge their energy banks, calm themselves down and find a way to regulate those emotions.” Because they are close in age and share a bedroom, sometimes they just need time apart. They also don’t feel bothered by being on their own in the same way as Marley.

Little boy throwing a tantrum What’s the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?A 2019 study by child psychology researchers at the University of Sydney analyzed more than 80 studies involving time outs and found that they are an effective and healthy strategy for parents to use as long as they are used in conjunction with “time-ins.” Time-ins may include quiet time to hang out, where you listen to your child’s point of view, empathize and talk about other ways to problem-solve.

How to do it right

If a time out is part of your parenting style and it works for your child, be clear about when you’re going to use it, such as in response to hitting, kicking or spitting. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests calmly warning your child first by saying “If you don’t stop, you’re going to have a time out.” For kids under two, Freedman Smith suggests introducing a new thing or changing the activity.

When negative behaviour happens, the AAP recommends that you name it: “No punching.” Have your child go to a quiet place, like the corner of a room, but not a separate room. Time-outs should be short, usually a minute per year of age. You can also give some power back to kids who are over three by having them decide on the length of time, says Freedman Smith. “You might want to say something like ‘We’ve got a problem: How are we going to get your hands under control? Take yourself out of the situation and come back as soon as your hands are under control.’ That might last 10 seconds or 10 minutes.”

Some experts say that there should be no interaction with your child during the time out. Freedman Smith suggests that interrupting the behaviour by sitting with them, taking deep breaths, reading a book or running around the yard can also work in some cases. No matter what approach you choose, the talking should begin when the child is calm. “The time out is not the endpoint,” she says. “It’s just the start, in the heat of the moment, so we can remove a child from a sticky situation. And then when they’re calm, we work on making that situation not happen again.”

Common mistake

One of the most common mistakes that parents make is getting into a power struggle with their kid. “I can’t tell you how many parents say they’re standing there holding the door closed and the kid is pulling on the other side of the door or trashing the dresser,” says Freedman Smith. “If it’s a gong show, stop. Often, we believe we have to be consistent, and that’s true most of the time. But if everything is going wrong, then you get to be the adult and say ‘Wow, this is not working very well. We need a better plan for this.’ In any kind of disciplinary situation, when you find that it’s you versus your child, see if you can make it you and your child versus the situation. Get everyone on the same side so that you’re working together.”

*Names have been changed

Read more:
Your kid’s joy is not your job
How to stop tantrums—before they start

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