As a developmental psychologist, I believe that anyone raising little kids could learn how to better use timeouts. This disciplinary technique is among the best ways to stop frustrating child behavior, like not listening, breaking family rules or being overly aggressive.
Psychologists have encouraged parents, other guardians and frequent caregivers to use timeouts, which are generally appropriate for children between the ages of 2 and 5, since the 1960s.
During timeouts, parents and other guardians briefly stop paying attention to their child and make the child sit quietly and calm down. Timeouts are meant to halt misbehavior and get children to stop acting out in the future.
Researchers have found over and over that timeouts generally work well — as long as parents and other primary caregivers consistently follow five specific steps.
The trouble is that much of the information available on the internet and through other channels is inaccurate or incomplete.
When a team of scholars reviewed about 100 websites, they found that not one of them included every essential step. So it shouldn’t be surprising that other researchers have found that most parents who use timeouts fail to follow them all.
Another problem is that timeouts aren’t appropriate for all forms of misbehavior. They’re best reserved for when kids behave aggressively, when they break things or when they refuse to follow directions that makes them unsafe.
For instance, your child hitting his brother or sister would be an appropriate reason to give a timeout. But tantrums, whining and talking back are not. Parents should try other strategies, such as ignoring the child for these behaviors.
What’s more, I do not recommend them at school, where, although there has not yet been conclusive research, I believe that other strategies work better.
Instead of using timeouts whenever a child misbehaves, adults should try other techniques, such as ignoring minor misbehavior, and consider if they can improve on how they react when a child misbehaves.
For parents and other guardians, that means making sure that their children’s days are filled with happy and fun “time in.” Parents can accomplish this by devoting at least 10 minutes a day to one-on-one play with their children. Parents should also be on the lookout for children’s good behavior and praise all the wonderful things their children do.
Kids should know which kinds of misbehavior will lead to timeouts, where they’ll have to go during timeouts and how long they’ll last. Parents should explain what will happen during timeouts when everyone is calm and happy, using a stuffed animal to demonstrate each step
Timeouts are supposed to be boring, not scary or extremely punitive. Parents need to stay calm and quiet the whole time, saying only the bare minimum to children about each step.
Before making your child begin their timeout, explain clearly why they have to do one. For instance, you could briefly say, “You hit your sister, you’re going to a timeout.” Then walk your child to the timeout chair.
I recommend using a quiet, boring location, rather than a room with lots of toys, filled with people or where a TV or another distracting device is on. It helps to use a sturdy chair suitable for grownups, rather than one designed for children because kid-sized chairs can be easily pushed over or even thrown by upset children.
Kids should spend one minute for each year of their age in the chair. There’s no evidence that making timeouts last any longer than that works better.
It’s OK if they get out of the chair, which does happen a lot. Parents can return their children to the chair, while staying calm and quiet. This might have to happen more than once because timeouts are boring by design and not all children can stand being bored.
If a child will only sit for 30 seconds at first, then end it after 30 seconds. But it needs to be up to the adult in charge, not the child, to say when the timeout is over. Once everyone involved gets the hang of doing timeouts the right way, they can gradually last longer. If your child was cooperative, thank them for that afterward.
Once the timeout ends, reconnect. This could be sitting on the floor and playing together. Or parents, other guardians and frequent caregivers can watch for things the child does that they want to see happen more often and praise that behavior.
Both parents and children need to follow all of these steps every time for timeouts to work. If you have trouble controlling your own temper, try something else. Also, timeouts aren’t appropriate for all children.
In most families, however, I find that timeouts work because young children realize that hitting and other kinds of misbehavior will bring about an unwanted break from having fun.
Lucy (Kathleen) McGoron is an assistant professor of child and family development at Wayne State University in MIchigan. Disclosure: McGoron receives funding from the National Institute of Mental Health.