Weighing In On the Time-Out Debate

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A new study by Knight and colleagues (2019) found that time-out is not associated with any long-term effects on children or their relationships with their parents. Yet, this study has a number of non-trivial shortcomings that render it essentially meaningless. Here’s a brief overview of the study before we sort through the problems with it.

Study Overview

Using archival data from a sample of 1,387 families with a child in Early Head Start, the study examined the long-term effects of time-out on children’s emotional and behavioral functioning, as well as on children’s relationships with their parents. Families were assessed when the child was three years of age and then again when the child was in pre-kindergarten and fifth grade. At the first assessment, the researchers asked parents open-ended questions about how they would respond to their child in each of the following four hypothetical scenarios:

  • The child keeps playing with breakable things
  • The child refuses to eat
  • The child throws a temper tantrum in a public place
  • The child hits the parent in anger

Parents who said that they would give their child a time-out in any of the four situations were categorized as being part of the time-out group, whereas parents who did not mention using a time-out were classified as falling into the no time-out group.

A Problematic Design

Although the two groups differed in regard to their endorsement of time-out, both groups reported that they would use a number of other harsh and/or invalidating discipline strategies that functionally resemble time-out. And here lies the study’s fatal flaw. Specifically, almost all of the discipline tactics endorsed by the no time-out group can be described as being punitive or dismissive of the emotions underlying children’s behaviors – much like time-out.

For example, the strategies endorsed by both groups included shouting, threatening, using physical punishment, giving “the look,” and distracting the child. In fact, the majority of the parents in the no-time-out group said that they would use one, many, or all of these tactics, with the most frequently endorsed strategy being shouting (93%). Accordingly, it is as though the authors investigated two sides of the same coin and then exclaimed that the coin hits the ground the same way regardless of which side it lands on when it falls.

Further, although some parents in the no time-out group responded to the hypothetical scenarios by saying that they would use strategies that could, in theory, be more respectful, it is impossible to determine whether this is actually the case given the way in which the authors presented the data. More specifically, some parents stated that they would remove the child or talk to the child; however, we have no way of knowing what this would actually look like in practice.

Indeed, removing the child could very well involve grabbing the child roughly by the arm and dragging him or her out of the room. Likewise, talking to the child could involve shaming the child by telling him or her that only “bad” children hit or that only babies cry. If so, then we should again not be surprised by the authors’ conclusions as this would further strengthen the argument that the two groups shared a lack of respect for kids in common, thus making them essentially indistinguishable from one another.

Misleading Conclusions

Notably, even if the researchers had compared a time-out group with a gentler, more respectful group of parents, the study still would not shed much light on the time-out debate due to other serious problems with the study’s outcome measures and data analytic plan. Accordingly, though the authors assert that their null findings suggest that time-out should be promoted as a “highly effective discipline strategy,” the reality is that their study was not designed to be able to support this conclusion.

A Risky Move

As a scientist, I recognize the need for further research to investigate the effects of time-out on children and our relationships with them. Ethically, however, I would not recommend carrying out this research as I would argue that the long-term costs of time-out likely outweigh any immediate benefits of its use.

Briefly, because children’s brains are not yet mature enough to understand otherwise, putting children in time-out may communicate to them that their acting out behaviors make them “bad” kids, thus leading to strong feelings of shame, inadequacy, and anger. Consequently, when we put children in time-out, we risk intensifying the already overwhelming emotions that typically lead kids to misbehave in the first place, especially when we use time-out while feeling angry or frustrated ourselves. Even worse, when banished to time-out, kids are left to try to cope with these powerful feelings on their own. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for the development of some very unhealthy coping strategies, and it likely precludes the acquisition and use of more adaptive emotion regulation skills.

Further, when we use time-out, we may inadvertently convey to our children that our love and acceptance is contingent upon them having tight control of their emotions; even if we do not actually feel this way. This puts kids in a tricky bind given that their developing brains are not yet always able to inhibit the impulsive urges that often accompany intense, uncomfortable feelings. As a result, children may come to believe that it is not safe to have painful emotions and that their experience of these inescapable feelings makes them unlovable. Relatedly, they may attempt to avoid or hide their feelings in order to please us, thus potentially leading to a weakened and inauthentic parent-child connection, as well as a host of other emotional problems. 

An Alternative Approach

Fortunately, we do not need to shame our children or invalidate their feelings by using time-out or other similar tactics in order to bring about behavior change and teach more effective self-regulation strategies. If we can recognize that our children’s acting out behaviors are essentially a cry for help, then we can rise to the occasion by acknowledging with empathy that we see that they are having a hard time, all while holding limits and calmly blocking any additional attempts to engage in inappropriate behaviors.

This alternative, more accepting and supportive approach allows kids to feel their emotions in full so that these feelings can eventually run their course. Additionally, through non-judgmental observation, we get to show our kids that we love them as they are and that we are interested in what is going on inside of them, even in their darkest moments. Over time, these intimate interactions help strengthen children’s emotion regulation abilities as well as their connection with us, thus reducing the frequency of unwanted behaviors and obviating the need for outdated and potentially harmful techniques like time-out.

And the Verdict Is . . .

Regrettably, despite the availability of alternative discipline strategies that facilitate emotional development, time-out continues to be widely used and is even recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. As is the case with much in our quick-fix society, we are so determined to reduce problematic behavior in the moment that we readily reject the notion that this tried and true solution might have unintended negative consequences down the road. Nevertheless, the potential negative effects of time-out should not be taken lightly and, unless and until proven wrong, warrant a time-out from this antiquated practice.

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