Time-Outs: Helpful Or Harmful?

Whether you have a naughty step, a corner, or say the classic “go to your room”, the time-out technique is a long-standing discipline method used by parents and teachers alike.

While it’s been used to put a stop to bad behavior for decades, due to conflicting research parents are beginning to question whether time-out is helping or harming their child. 

Here we will explore what time-out actually does for your child, whether it can harm their development, and if you should be using it at all. 

Why Parents Use Time-Out?

Most parenting experts agree that the time-out method is one of the best for disciplining your child. Time-out can lead to a change in behavior quickly as it gets the child’s attention and forces them to question their actions.

Children do a lot of things for attention, so removing this aspect as well as stimulation for a short period can often calm them down and nip the behavior in the bud. 

People who call for a time-out ban often use the argument that the parents are simply ignoring their kids for a few minutes and aren’t dealing with the problem.

In reality, parents aren’t ignoring their children but ignoring the behavior instead. By withdrawing attention the child learns that this behavior won’t work in getting the attention they want, leading them to stop doing it. 

Are Time-Outs Harmful? 

Like with all discipline methods there will be people who are champions of it and those who hate it.

Though time-out was originally used as a replacement for corporal punishment in the 1950s, there are some researchers and parenting experts today who argue that this method can be just as damaging to a child’s mental health and development. 

An article written for Time magazine in 2014 titled ‘Time-Outs’ Are Hurting Your Child’ caused a stir in the parenting world when it was first published. The article outlines how time-outs only lead to isolation, comparing it in a way to solitary confinement.

Although it may be presented lovingly, the message the child will hear is that they’re a mistake, or if they’re having a hard time they’ll be forced to deal with it by themselves. Essentially this article says that the time-out can leave the child feeling rejected by their parents. 

The article was written by the authors of ‘No-Drama Discipline’ Daniel J. Siegal, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD.

As mentioned in their book they found through brain imaging that the experience a child has of relational pain – through being rejected by their parents – looked very similar to the experience of physical pain in terms of brain activity. 

Critics of this method also believe that instead of helping the child calm down, time-out only makes the child more distressed, angry, and out of control. The lack of attention the child received in this punishment may lead them to act out even more when the time’s up. 

It may also harm the parent/child relationship, say some experts. A child’s “profound need for connection”, says Dr. Siegal, means that when a parent forces their child into isolation it can lead to distress and a decrease in trust between them and their parents.

It can be hard for a child to build back up the trust, perhaps leading to issues in the future. 

Another reason why time-out might be harmful is it might not actually teach your child anything about their behavior.

A child in time-out may be overwhelmed with negative emotions like anger, shame, and distress, making them unable to absorb the message of what they did wrong leading to a repeat of the same behavior. 

With all this in mind, you might now be thinking of giving up on time-outs for good, but this is only half the story. Next, let’s talk about… 

Time-In – What Is It And Does It Really Work? 

A disciple method championed by the few opponents of time-out, this technique aims to change your child’s behavior more positively.

With time-in, instead of sending a child away to an isolated spot for a few minutes, the parent physically comforts the child and reassures them that they’re there for them and that whatever the issue is they can work through it together. 

While this method seems great in theory, as any parent or childcarer knows, there are times when children can be so out of control that a simple conversation just isn’t enough.

If a child is overwhelmed or overstimulated, physical contact or an actual conversation may make them act out even more. The more the parent tries to soothe the child and calm them down, the worse they may become. 

Also, not all behavior requires a full conversation to explain what’s gone wrong. A child may see a long chat about their bad behavior as even more of a punishment, even if the parent is just trying to help them, leading them to reject the message their parent is trying to teach. 

So Are There Any Benefits To Time-Out? 

Yes, many actually. Despite all the warnings from some experts saying it can harm your child’s development, in the long run, no evidence has been found to say this method is harmful. 

A study on the long-term effects of time-outs found that kids who’d experienced this type of punishment were not at an increased risk of anxiety, depression, or aggression. There was also no increase in rule-breaking behaviors or self-control issues. 

Time-out has also been found to work well on children who may have attention disorders that cause them to act out.

Making your child go to a quiet and boring place prevents them from being overstimulated by the rest of the house, allowing a safe way to calm down and curb the behavioral issue. 

Giving both children and parents the space they need to calm down is also another huge benefit of time out. Sometimes when a child is really acting up and pushing all the right buttons, it can lead to a shouting match between them and their parents.

Giving both parties a space away from each other to take a breath and have a think lowers the emotions for both of them, allowing for a calmer resolution to the issue once the time is up. 

How To Use Time-Out The Right Way?

Though all parents seem to have a different way of implementing a time-out there are a few things you can do to make it as effective as possible.

First of all, keep it short. The longer the child is in time-out the more bored they become. While this may seem like the point when they do eventually leave the spot they’ll have more energy and it may lead them to act out even more. 

It’s also important to explain to your child what behavior led them to time-out. If they don’t know why their behavior was bad, they won’t reflect on it or change.

However children under 3 are not yet able to reflect on their behavior and understand where they went wrong, and so time-out is best used on them as a quiet spot where they can just sit and calm down for a few minutes.

Like all disciple methods, consistency is key. You can’t expect a child’s behavior to change straight away, and so it may take multiple attempts to make time-out work. There is where some parents falter as they see it’s not working and stop trying altogether. 

Time-out is a method that may not work for everyone, but from the evidence, it seems like a helpful way to discipline your child in an effective and non-harmful way. Tried and tested for decades and with no negative repercussions later in life, this method is one all parents should give a go.