Child in timeout

Do time-outs work as punishment for children? Family therapist and author Susan Stiffelman explains why they don't work, why they can actually cause clinginess in your child and what techniques are much more effective.

Positive parenting

There's no doubt about it: Time-outs work. Sort of.

They work because unless a child has become hardened and aloof, the experience of being separated from a parent's comforting presence is unpleasant at best and intolerable at worst. But they come at a price, and eventually they stop working — because they violate one of the three primary drives of a child's brain: the need for close and secure attachment.

Children need a secure attachment

Children are wired to be closely connected to their caretakers. Attachment is vital to their survival and well-being. Unlike the young of other mammals, little humans are utterly dependent on their guardians to provide food, warmth, shelter and nurturing. We simply cannot survive without being connected to those who care for us.

When a misbehaving child is sent to their room to "think about" their offense, the only thing they're really thinking about is either how soon they can get back to Mommy or Daddy or how much they hate their parent for sending them away.

The former response is what we initially see in a younger child whose experience of anxiety at being separated from the parent shoots through the roof. The latter response — anger and contempt — happens when the child feels outraged at being ostracized.

What role does discipline play in parenting? >>

Why time-outs don't work

Time Out

The problems with time-outs are numerous. First, at the very time when the angry or misbehaving child is out of control and in need of the calming influence of a caring parent, they're left to settle down entirely on their own. Most children are incapable of doing this. They need an adult to help them come back to themselves when they're swept up in the storm of their emotions. A child whose behavior has been so impulsive or destructive as to warrant being sent away shouldn't be left to his own devices to become centered again.

Sending a child away when they're distressed is essentially saying to them, "I can't handle you when you show this side of yourself. Come back when you can be the manageable Susie or Johnny that I can handle." Not only are we telling the child that we only find the good, compliant version of themselves acceptable, we're also declaring our inability to cope with all of who they are.

As I've said in many other articles, a child deeply needs their parent to function as the confident captain of the ship in their life. When a parent sends a child away because they can't handle their misbehavior, they're effectively telling them that they (the child) have the power to render them (the parent) incompetent and helpless.

Time-outs increase separation anxiety

One of the characteristics I see in children whose parents routinely use time-outs is clinginess. Unless (or until) these kids become hardened and indifferent, they handle separation badly. While it usually works to tell a child who refuses to leave the park, "OK, then, I'm leaving without you!" (most kids will indeed come running), the anxiety created by chronically threatening a child with separation damages their core sense of security and connection.

Time out for time-outs? >>

What can you do?

When a parent functions as the captain of the ship in their child's life, there's a natural dynamic at play that makes time-outs largely unnecessary. Sure, there are always times when our kids are cranky, hungry, jealous or running on empty, but if we do our best to anticipate problems before they manifest, we can usually avoid behavior getting out of hand.

For all practical purposes, time-outs are the equivalent of shunning a child. In most societies, shunning is considered the most dreadful form of punishment. When we instead manage a child's misbehavior while preserving their sense of connection with us, we avoid the harmful effects of time-outs — which in the long run, create more problems than they solve.

Avoiding power struggles: Parenting without bribes or threats >>

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Your top 10 discipline problems solved
Why are you tolerating your kids' bad behavior?

Tags: time out

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Comments on "Positive discipline: Why time-outs don't work"

HappyDancer119 April 04, 2014 | 6:22 AM

Time outs work great on my four-year-old. And please, it is NOT shunning Candy Valla! It's 4 minutes sitting quietly on the Naughty Chair. Candy Valla should realize it's structure--at MSU's Early Childhood Class at present with a Community Music School instructor, it's going to be alphabetical order [so she will be last because her last name is Valla], as well as birth month [so she'll be last because she was born January 12]. In Marble Elementary kindergarten, she'll have a time-away because kindergarten is full of structure.

Beth March 27, 2014 | 11:13 PM

I am pleased that so many are in favor of time outs, they are effective on children as young as two years, at that time the child is old enough to understand a short explanation of why they are in time out, such as, "you are in time out because you hit your sister." At the end of the time out (one minute per year of age) ask her why she is in time out, a 2 year old may not be verbal enough to answer and in that case, you the parent, remind her, "You were put in time out because you hit your sister" Hug her, and have her apologize to her sister. It does work!

Monica Sokoloski March 17, 2014 | 2:09 PM

The comments here are so encouraging. It's so nice to see that more and more people are feeling comfortable stating that they feel good about enforcing reasonable discipline in their homes, and that they observe that their children are better off for it. Time outs do work. A handful of "professionals" with some misguided theories who don't have to live with the children whose parents they are leading astray, feel that they can say over and over that time-outs are not effective? Where's the proof? What makes them right? We have eyes. We can see that it does work. So well done parents. Keep it up!

Aleeanna December 10, 2013 | 7:04 PM

From what I remember when I was younger you are totally right! Time out make the child feel unwanted and different in a bad way and left out. About leaving the child at the park thing I would have felt unloved and not secure. This was a great article.

Hannah July 11, 2013 | 5:39 PM

Charlotte, time out is when you sit WITH your child for 5 minutes. No wonder it's not working! Try ICPS [a better alternative]. Example 1: Mom: Darcy, your teacher tells me you're grabbing toys again. Tell me what happened. Child: You took the toys away from me when I spent only one minute playing them. Mom: How many times do I have to tell you? You're belittling me constantly. That is why I took them away from you. Now no more about this.

Charlotte June 07, 2013 | 4:32 AM

My only daughter is just turning two so I don't yet have the experience of dealing with an older child. She isn't yet old enough to understand the idea of a formal "time-out" as a punishment for disobedience. Even so, the thought of it turns my stomach. I just don't think I could do that to my kid. On the other hand, when she is having a tantrum over not getting her way, I have observed that if I just walk away and leave her alone for a few minutes, the crying stops and she moves on to something else. Conversely, if I stay near her, the tantrum continues. One could call this an informal time out, I suppose, and it seems to work just fine. Although I am a new parent with limited experience, I am beginning to question the need for formal discipline at all. I don't give my kid everything she asks for. If she acts out I basically ignore the "acting-out" behavior until she's done with it. I try to set reasonable limits and be as good a role model as possible. So far my kid is happy, well-behaved and well-adjusted, even according to objective reports from daycare providers. Maybe I'm just lucky?

Hannah May 24, 2013 | 2:06 PM

I kind of agree with Michelle on this article: Time-outs do work for when kids have tantrums, although I don't think they need to near the parent; they work better alone. They ALL need to last for FIVE minutes, not in a room, but in a corner facing the wall. For younger children, a naughty chair can work [like when my sister was one year old, but now we use a corner that she HATES], but I'm talking about when big kids have fits--a corner FACING THE WALL. But, Michelle, for bad behavior in general, time out will not work. ICPS [I Can Problem Solve] is a better discipline technique that empowers kids to think for themselves, but is not permissive at all, at all.

Hannah May 24, 2013 | 1:52 PM

Time-outs work great on a two-year-old girl to gain control over her emotions. And please, this is NOT shunning! When considering time-away to gain control over a child's fit, I have to agree with T.R. For a two year old screaming and having a tantrum over being late for preschool and having a horrendous fit and having a tantrum over Daddy leaving the house, this is not humiliation; it's five minutes of stopping a tantrum! Also, for bad behavior in general [emotions are not bad behavior, but still need time-outs], I feel time-outs sound mean. I kind of agree that time-outs are mean when kids don't follow directions, because time outs are the reason why so many kids tell counselors, "You're mean! You're mean!" There is another discipline method that opposes time outs when kids are naughty. ICPS [I Can Problem Solve]. Instead of humiliating kids and making them feel bad about themselves, especially when they act up, ICPS empowers children by encouraging them to think for themselves. Mama: Maria, your teacher tells me you're hurting your sister Kayla. Tell me what happened. Maria: I was playing a game with Kayla. I was playing rough with Kayla and knocked her down. Then she started to cry as my teacher made me stand in the corner like you asked her to. Mama: How do you think Kayla felt when you knocked her down? Maria: Sad? Mama: What can you do or say so she won't feel sad and you will not have to stand in the corner feeling angry at your teacher? Maria: Instead of knocking Kayla down and winding up in the corner, I could tell her there's nothing she needs to worry about. Mama: This is a wonderful effort you're making!

M April 13, 2013 | 7:01 PM

You never gave an alternative. I know people who attachment parent so much the child has run them to the ground. So what do you suggest. I do time out with a child in a room near by so they know i am there and it helps immensely and not in an angry mode, and i talk to them after. They know that when they ready to listen and behave i will let them out. . If you going to criticize it at least offer an alternative.

Jami March 23, 2013 | 7:07 AM

I don't agree with this article either. My daughters preschool teacher does time-outs as well. They don't learn by coddling. And we all need a chance to cool down every once and a while. I do agree that sending them to their room is not going to teach them anything. That is where all of their toys are. They will just play not think. Putting them where you can see and hear them still is a better time-out. This does not create separation anxiety this keeps them close while they are learning to calm down.

Lila March 22, 2013 | 6:26 PM

This kind of parenting is why this world is a mess, this is basically says "Hey! No consequences!" You want good Parenting advice, look for anything by Dr. James Dobson.

Lilly January 30, 2013 | 12:33 PM

Time out is useful in my school; we cant prevent the behavior and is needed sometimes but the most important is to show a good behavior and be a model for children

Orangecrush255 January 30, 2013 | 6:07 AM

I think I agree with most of this article but I don't like how inconclusive it is. What is a better alternative to time out? Behavior cannot always be prevented!

T.R. January 28, 2013 | 3:15 PM

Time outs work great with my five-year-old. So they can indeed work. And please, it is NOT shunning! This is not an Amish community, folks. It's five minutes sitting quietly to calm down and think a little. It gives you both a chance to calm down and then talk about what happened. That's when he has to articulate what was inappropriate and that he is sorry. Then we hug, say I love you and go on. This may come as a shock but it is OKAY for a kid to feel remorse for inappropriate behavior. They should feel bad about it. They should face consequences. It teaches them not to repeat it. Wonder why so many kids run the house and not the parents? The parents are bending over backwards to cater to their little prince /princess so much that they are no longer parents. Time out isn't for every child, but it works fine for us.

michelle January 26, 2013 | 8:47 PM

great advice. time-outs don;t work on my 2 yr old

Stacy January 26, 2013 | 12:25 PM

So what are you supposed to do when your child is acting out? There has to be something you can do to tell them that it's not OK. If you comfort them and give in every time you're going to wind up with an out of control brat.

Jon October 23, 2012 | 10:34 PM

I would say Time Outs only work on CERTAIN types of children. There are numerous types it does NOT work on. First is the type who have become hardened, as mentioned in the article. But there is also another type, though I don't know how to classify it. I am this type, perhaps the "gifted troublemaker". When sent to time out, while understanding the purpose of the time out, I learned to just get absorbed in my own imagination and when the time is up would offer an apology but often a fake one (so time outs could teach a child to prepare to lie effectively if they are smart enough to know you expect an apology). I learned to just go into my imagination rather than "reflect" at a young age, and it also made detention in school completely powerless over me later on. In fact, I learned to ENJOY detention so if anything it only emboldened me to be a huge troublemaker. I caused huge problems in the school system (the principal retired and mentioned me as a reason). I was from a Northern liberal state. But when we moved down south, the schools were so radically different, not only did I stop misbehaving because of the air of authority (spanking was allowed down there but not needed as I straightened up simply because of the atmosphere), but imagine my surprise when they understood I was gifted and had me take tests which proved it and placed me in honors programs. Turns out part of the reason for me acting out was the material was not challenging me. But the other part was definitely the permissive environment in the Northern schools where I was allowed to walk all over the teachers, rebel, and the worst punishment was simply time outs which I rather enjoyed. My type is certainly an exception, but I wanted to mention my specific case where time outs backfired, and I wasn't "hardened". Spare the rod and spoil the child, so to speak. I really was emboldened. I don't know how many other kids enjoy time out, but it's certainly something to watch out for.

Phae September 29, 2012 | 5:14 AM

It's not about punishment, it's about behaviour having consequences. I don't use time out with my children as a punishment. When my daughter has a melt down, I don't give in, but neither do I punish her for being overwhelmed by a situation not going the way she'd planned (hey I get upset when things don't turn out the way I wanted them to, too!). I'll hug her, offer her a drink of water, and when she is calm, we'll talk out alternatives. I hope in time she'll be able to manage her frustration better, but truthfully, I still get upset and cry sometimes when I'm angry and frustrated and nothing I'm doing seems to be working right. Why would I punish my daughter for something that is natural. I don't accept her being violent - if she hits me, I will not cuddle her - natural consequence of her behaviour, I don't want to get hurt. Both of my children are described by their teachers as being socially just, outgoing and bright, and neither has any behavioural problems at school. Some of that is no doubt due to luck or genetics, but obviously our disciplining method isn't completely worthless.

Jasmine June 14, 2012 | 5:19 AM

There is absolutely nothing concrete in this article, nor in the "avoiding power struggles" one... save your time and move on! This is nonsense as we all know there is no reasoning with a child during a tantrum or fit. You must "ignore" and "isolate". This behavior is just a normal part of being a toddler and there is no getting away from it. Trying to "talk it though" with them or be "alongside" them is just stalling and delaying the outcome. It is a form of negotiation. Kids learn that other form of "power" pretty quickly and turn the technique on us... Kids have to learn and respect authority once again. It is these kinds of lectures that have led the generation of kids aged 23 and under to be spoiled brats.

DS May 27, 2012 | 6:26 PM

Time outs say "I can't handle you" or "that behavior is not acceptable?" The WHAT CAN YOU DO portion doesn't say what to do when a child is acting up. This is the problem I keep seeing with all this "positive parenting." No one actually gives an alternative. This is borderline permissive parenting & doesn't prepare a child for the real world. In preschool they're going to have time outs. In school there's going to be detention when they act up. I don't know why people think if you're not "positive" parenting, you're at the complete opposite of the spectrum beating the child silly.

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