A New Look at Time-Out for Kids and Parents

A New-and-Improved Timeout Procedure

This is the first of a two-part piece on time-out. Both parts (and more) are included in the book: How to Talk so Parents will Listen and Listen so Parents will Talk: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344118211&sr=1-5&keywords=how+to+listen+so+parents+will+talk+and+talk+so+parents+will+listen

Timeout from reinforcement is an immensely popular behavioral response cost procedure. Unfortunately, most parents use it like corporal punishment; when children misbehave, parents put them in timeout. The problem with traditional timeout as practiced in most households is that parents wield it like a stick when, technically, it’s supposed to be the taking away of a carrot.

It’s possible that problems with timeout arise because the term is so deceptively simple that most people believe they automatically understand what timeout is and how to use it. In reality, there are a number of do’s and don’ts that parents need to learn about timeout; these will be covered in part II of this special and exciting time-out series. 

Timeout from reinforcement is a very brief time period during which children are not exposed to the normally rich, exciting, and rewarding stimulation of everyday life. Timeout is not “thinking time” and it should never be more than 10 minutes. Timeout is simply a break from all potential forms of positive reinforcement (including yelling, lecturing, and glaring).

Timeout Problems and Timeout Solutions

As Kazdin (2008) suggested (see the book, Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child), if brief and humane timeouts are not working, parents should not escalate their consequences. Instead, they should make time-in more enjoyable and work with their child on positive behavior simulations (described in the next section). Escalating punishment is a bad idea.

Typical complaints parents make about timeout are: (1) My child won’t go to timeout; and (2) my child won’t stay in timeout. Kazdin (2008) described, from a behavioral perspective, how to handle children who don’t go to timeout:

“If you declare a time-out and your child folds his arms and says, No, I’m not going, and you [shouldn’t] drag him, what do you do? First, give him an extra minute penalty. You can do this twice: up the time-out from two minutes to three, then to four. Then, if that doesn’t work, take away a privilege—something significant but brief, like no TV today. Then turn and walk away. Don’t give in if he then says, Okay okay okay, I’ll do it, because then you’d be reinforcing an unwanted sequence. . . . Let the consequence do the work. Resist the temptation to add little zingers. . . .” (pp. 142–143; italics in original)

Kazdin is making several excellent points in this description of how to handle timeout noncompliance. One part bears highlighting: When children refuse to do something physical, parents should not force them into the act.  Forcing a physical act is beyond reasonable parent power and control and can result in ugly and undesirable outcomes. Instead, as Kazdin suggests, the parent should shift to a consequence over which the parent has complete control and authority (and the child’s physical movements is not one of these things).

Emotions and Emotional Timeouts

Timeouts will often elicit strong emotions and strong emotions will often elicit timeouts. This highlights the question of how to deal with children’s emotions before, during, and after timeouts.

Parents are the best experts on their own children’s emotional states and so the helping professional’s job is to help parents balance a reasonable response to misbehavior (a brief timeout) with their children’s need for empathy, emotional soothing, and emotion coaching.

Case: An Emotionally Soothing Timeout

Parent: When I try to put my child into timeout, he becomes an emotional basket case. He screams and cries and it’s really terrible.

Consultant: That sounds very hard. It really reminds me of how important it is for parents to set limits on misbehavior and provide empathy and comfort for difficult emotions at the same time. It’s possible to do both.

Parent: How do I do that?

Consultant: You need to stand firm on not giving in to whatever your child wanted before the timeout was called. So, if your child hit another boy and grabbed a toy, you would never give back the toy or put your child back with the other boy before the timeout was served. You stay firm because whenever your child is aggressive or obnoxious you cannot give in to him and give him what he wants. That’s a huge parenting rule.

Parent: Okay, I understand that.

Consultant: Then, you need to decide how much emotional support your child needs. If he’s heading toward inconsolable sobbing, you may need to make it a brief thirty-second to one-minute timeout. Right at the end, you swoop in and comfort and console and help him understand what he did wrong and what he could do next time to avoid the timeout. This is because if your child is sobbing, he’s already experienced the punishment and so there’s no need to prolong it.

Parent: But I’ve always heard you should keep your child in timeout until he behaves, or at least until he’s served one minute for each year of his age.

Consultant: There’s crazy information out there about timeout. The truth is: The first minute is the most important. Waiting for him to behave or calm down on his own could be too traumatic for both of you. And the one-minute-for-each-year is a general guideline that should be adjusted for individual children.

Parent: Okay.

Consultant: The only reason you might wait longer would be if you believed your child was pretending to be upset to get your attention. Even then, you shouldn’t wait long before offering emotional comfort, maybe two minutes.

Parent: Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure he’s not faking it.

Consultant: Another thing to keep in mind is that some children, and your son may be an example, need help with emotional soothing. He may need a calming timeout more than he needs a bad-behavior timeout. If that’s the case, find a big pillow or comfortable spot and have him do his timeout there. And if he’s really a wreck, spend the timeout with him and help him recover.

This dialogue illustrates some of the complexities and misconceptions of timeout. For example, when the consultant suggests using a big pillow for a timeout spot instead of the classic chair or corner, she’s illustrating that she understands that timeout is a response-cost procedure and not a punishment procedure. The purpose is not to inflict pain or discomfort, but to take away the “fun” of time-in. This is an important distinction for parents to understand and it can be much more productive and effective for children to serve their brief timeout in a comfortable spot (without toys or books). In fact, to promote emotional de-escalation it may even be appropriate for parents to take their child to his or her room and engage in gently playful activities while expressing empathy for the child’s emotional state and hope for emotional recovery.

Overall, when choosing to use timeouts as a reasonable consequence for specific behaviors (e.g., hitting a sibling or parent), parents should anticipate their children’s potential emotional reactions. These reactions can range from rage and anger to sadness, tears, and inconsolable sobbing. Parents should also consider emotional-recovery timeouts, during which emotional soothing takes place. Finally, parents can role-model timeout behavior by taking one themselves—especially when they’re emotionally upset and need to do a little deep breathing.



John puts himself in timeout. . .


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