Toddler time outs: They're not a bad thing

New study shows time outs have their place, especially for kids who are, you know, difficult.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

It seems like every parenting expert—and every parent—has their own take on the time out. Some swear by negative discipline techniques like the naughty chair, while others say kids need positive discipline (reasoning, empathizing and finding compromises) to learn how to control their behaviour. There’s often very little wriggle room as to what people on either side of the debate deem acceptable.

But in my own house with three kids I’ve found what worked for one kid didn’t always work for the others. When my daughter Ann (now seven) was younger we offered alternatives, reasoned with her and gave her plenty of “time-ins.” None of that seemed to stop her from screaming when things didn’t go her way. With her two younger brothers, however, these techniques seem to work. So what’s a parent at the end of her rope to do?

A new study presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association found that both positive discipline and giving consequences can improve toddler behaviour—it just depends on what kind of toddler you’re talking about, and how often you use the technique.

“Positive parenting is a good thing, and parents ought to be as positive as they can be,” says Robert Larzelere, professor of human development and family science at Oklahoma State University, the author of the study. “But the extreme position that you’re harming your child when you use negative consequences doesn’t have evidence to support it.”

His study looked at 102 mothers and toddlers over a two-day period, and had the moms record what happened when their kids were acting out, how they disciplined them, and what the result was. He then followed up with them two and 16 months later.

For all kids, compromising was the most effective way to get a toddler to cooperate in the moment. But for frequently “oppositional” toddlers (for example, those who were defiant or hit), offering alternatives actually made their behaviour problems worse two months and 16 months down the road. For toddlers whose general behaviour was more in the whining/negotiating zone, rather than oppositional, offering alternatives improved their behaviour two months and 16 months later.

When it came to what the study called “broad power assertive responses” (including punishments like timeouts and taking away privileges), they worked, but only for the oppositional kids, and only when used less than 1/6th of the time. They were the least effective strategy for kids who are generally only mildly non-compliant (ie. the whiners and bargainers).

One finding I personally found interesting was that reasoning was the least effective way to get an oppositional toddler to cooperate in the moment, but at the two-month and 16 month follow-ups, frequent reasoning did improve overall behaviour in these kids. With Ann, I’ve definitely found over the years that the more she understands a situation, the more she’s willing to go with the flow.

The bottom line: Don’t feel you have to subscribe completely to one theory or another. “Parenting theories don’t take different situations into account,” says Larzelere. But for those especially tough-to-handle toddlers, two-minutes on the time-out stair might be just what they need.

Claire Gagne is acting senior editor for Today’s Parent and mom to three kids.

Read more:
Time outs: Harmful or helpful?>
6 discipline fallbacks… and how to fix them>

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