The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)recently called for the complete ban of spanking as a disciplinary tool in the United States. According to their updated policy, spanking is ineffective in teaching a child responsibility and self-control and may cause harm to the child by increasing aggression and affecting normal brain development. In its place, the AAP recommends various disciplinary methods like establishing a clear relationship between behavior and consequences, rewarding positive behavior, and using timeouts.
Time out as a disciplinary tool was conceived by child psychologists Montrose Wolfe and Arthur Statts. It’s short for “time out for positive reinforcement,” and is intended to be a “break” from fun, according to Camilo Ortiz, an associate professor of psychology, in his article for The Washington Post. Various studies over the years have found it effective at reducing misbehavior in kids ages 2 to 6 years old.
Apart from the AAP, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also supports time out as a best practice for promoting good behavior in young children. But it is probably the most misused child discipline technique of all, with many parenting experts questioning its effectiveness, usefulness and even the ethics of using it as a way to modify a child’s behavior.
When your toddler starts saying “no” and throwing tantrums, it’s easy to be at a loss over what to do. Some parents try to pacify the child by distracting him from the tantrum, while others issue repeated commands or even resort to threatening. While this might work for most children, experts agree that timeouts must be used when children have lost self-control and are showing signs of aggression (yelling and having a meltdown).
How to make time out work? Experts say keep the following things in mind:
1. Be clear on what situations require a time out.
Many parents use time-outs based on how frustrated they are with their child rather than as a response to their child’s behavior. The key is to be specific: use a time out when your child is hitting a sibling, rather than the more general “when he’s being aggressive.” Stick to giving time-outs for one type of misbehavior then slowly add it to other things. When used sparingly, time-outs are more likely to be effective.
2. Don’t use time out when a child is trying to avoid doing something.
If a child doesn’t want to go to bed, putting him on a time out is counterproductive — you’re actually giving him what he wants — a delay so he doesn’t have to sleep early.
Time out works because it’s boring, which is why you’d find parents asking them to “face the wall.” But make sure it’s a place where you can still supervise without being in the same room.
One of the reasons why time-outs are seen as ineffective is because the parents continue to reinforce the negative behavior while the kids are on a time out, such as lecturing them. “During a time out, parents should ignore the child until both of them calms down,” says Lolita David, a preschool teacher. Talking to your child during a timeout defeats the purpose of the whole exercise.
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4. Decide how long the time out will take.
According to the AAP, parents have to ignore the children completely for one minute for each year of age. For example, a 2-year-old gets a time-out of two minutes, while a five-year-old gets a time-out of five minutes. The AAP recommends using a timer, but for children who are at least three years old, parents can try letting their children lead their own timeout. You can say, "Go to a time out and come back when you are ready and willing to do the task (i.e. clean up his toys.)"
5. If you make him go on a tim eout because he doesn’t want to do something, make sure he still does the task after the time out.
For example, you make your child go on a time out because he doesn’t want to clean up his toys. After the time out, let him clean up his toys. If he still doesn’t want to, get him to do another brief time out.
Make sure to reward positive behavior — if he does clean up after the timeout, praise him. “It’s just as essential to teach children what to do as it is what not to do,” says Ortiz.
6. Use another disciplinary tool when your child refuses to go on time out or leaves time out early.
“You need a moderate backup consequence that is more of a pain for your child than going to time out for three minutes,” says Ortiz. For example, say, “If you don’t do a timeout, you won’t get screen time until tomorrow.” A stubborn kid will just shrug that off — who needs screen time when you can have no time-outs for now, right? Well, follow through on the consequence. Don’t force him to do a time out but don’t give in and make him access screens either. If the privilege is something your child wants, he’ll be more likely to follow and do a timeout next time.
If you’re worried about ignoring your child’s feelings, reducing his self-esteem and causing a trauma when you do a time out, studies have found that the exercise, when followed by positive interactions with the parent, may actually decrease trauma symptoms in children. It can teach children to self-soothe, reduce problem behaviors, and help children display greater self-control, according to Ortiz. Parents might even reduce their use of physical punishments (like spanking) when they use timeouts as a disciplinary strategy.