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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Unraveling Timeout (By Anshu Basnyat, LCPC)

            Over the years, timeout has become quite controversial in discipline discussions.  Probably second to spanking. The controversy is basically centered around its effectiveness as a disciplinary tool and concerns around the effects on the child being isolated.  Some critics say that it is abandoning your child during time of need and not loving the child unconditionally.  I say hogwash! In my opinion, it is a very effective disciplinary tool if done properly.  I would recommend it for children from two years of age to twelve, depending on the individual child's maturity level. Furthermore, it is most effective when other strategies are available as alternatives (e.g. taking privileges away).  This tool alone will not cut it.
           However, parents need to consider two questions before using timeout. One is, why the negative behavior is occurring (e.g. hunger, attention, sleep deprivation, etc.). Second, what function do you want timeout to have? Using timeouts “to think about their behavior” or “to get it out of their system” is very different than principles based on operant conditioning where you remove the child from a situation that can be rewarding or reinforcing.  Therefore, reinforcement continues the behavior whereas punishment stops or reduces the behavior.
            In my home, we use it as a safe place to calm down and/or removing the child from a reinforcing situation. We want our child to understand that behaviors have consequences. Like in real life, positive behaviors usually have positive consequences and negative behaviors have negative consequences.  For example, if my son is whining due to hunger then we give him food.  If he’s whining to be difficult, get into power struggle, seek attention , etc. then we give him timeout.
            We follow the general principle of using 1 minute per year of age as a guideline. However, sometimes we may change it a bit depending on his and/or our emotional state. If our son continues the negative behavior and acquires new ones while in timeout, then we either add few more minutes or start taking privileges away (e.g. reduce tv time). I've heard stories where parents have forgotten to take kids out of timeout.  This is where the abandonment issues will arise.  Likewise, if he goes to timeout without a fuss and sits quietly, then we may end timeout sooner. It’s a judgment call.
            The mechanics of how we implement timeout is pretty simple. When our son engages in a negative behavior such as whining, we count “1”.  If he stops whining, he gets praise (e.g. “good listening”) and no timeout. Life goes on as usual. If he doesn’t stop whining, then we count “2.” No praise since we had to come to “2”, and no timeout since he did listen, albeit reluctantly. Life goes on. If he still doesn’t stop whining, then we count to “3” and say “go to timeout for whining, 6 minutes” (specify the negative behavior and time).  After 6 minutes, he is told “timeout is over” and we move on. We do not talk about it afterward.
            I do not believe in rehashing the past and talking about why they did the behavior or saying something about if they thought about what they did unless it was a very serious offense like hitting or talking back. Rehashing the past will only put you in another power struggle with your child and this circular motion will not resolve or teach anything.  I should also add that for very serious negative behaviors like talking back, we do not count. That constitutes an immediate timeout and say “go to timeout for talking back.”  This does not happen often, but when it does, our son is usually very remorseful and apologizes afterward. We briefly talk about why it’s inappropriate to talk back (i.e.disrespectful) and we move on.  If he’s feeling very bad about his behavior, he may even get a kiss or hug to communicate that we love him unconditionally despite his negative behavior.  This happens very infrequently so as not to reinforce the negative behavior. If timeout is a novel practice for you, just skip this altogether so there's no confusion. 
              I would also like to add that timeout needs to be implemented very calmly and consistently.  If you get emotional, then forget it. You are better off taking a timeout for yourself and then addressing your child soon after.  Lastly, you should not put your child in timeout because you need a break and they have not misbehaved. This is tempting, I know, but it will backfire on you. I know every parent can take charge of challenging situations gracefully if only they believe they can.  So next time your child misbehaves, silently say to yourself “Bring- it-on!”


  1. I found this very helpful. We haven't started doing timeout yet, but I feel like it is only a matter of time. I also think it's best to have a plan of action prior to the issues arriving and this post will be something I'll be thinking about when that time does arrive.

  2. Lea: Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad this will come in handy! You are absolutely right to have an action plan before you need it. Prevention is the best method of discipline!