Why Timeouts Don't Work


Why timeouts don’t (always) work

If you’re like most parents, then the first time your child does something wrong, you’re at a loss of what to do.  You think back to what your own parents did with you or what you see your friends doing with their kids.  Lots of parents use timeouts because they do usually work at getting the child to stop misbehaving, but only in that moment.  I don’t think I’ve met one parent who’s put their kid in timeout for something, and that child never did it again.

A lot of parents get frustrated when they keep putting their kid in timeout for something, and they still continue to do it.  Here’s why timeouts don’t always work:

Punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Let’s say you’ve asked your child to clean up their toys, they say “no” they don’t want to.  You tell them again and they start throwing the toys.  You tell them if they do it again they’ll get a timeout.  They do it again, and you send them to timeout.  Seems to make sense – you asked them to do something, they didn’t and started throwing toys, so you put them in timeout.  Except, they got out of cleaning up their toys!  Some of you may make them clean up the toys after the timeout, some of you may clean them yourselves.  Either way, the child didn’t have to listen to what you told them to do in that moment.  Timeouts should only be used if you’re taking the child away from something they want to be participating in, and they’re most effective if they can still hear or see the activity continuing without them.

Not teaching what to do instead. When you punish a child (whether it be timeout, spanking, or taking away toys), you haven’t seized the opportunity to teach them what they should be doing instead.  You’ve told them “no, don’t do that,” but how are they supposed to know what they should be doing?  For instance, your child is playing next to their friend, and the friend takes their toy, so your child hits them.  You put them in timeout because they just hit another child, when really your child needs to be taught what to do in that situation.  Instead, let them know that hitting is not how we ask for things and to use their words, have them practice, then present the situation again.  If they use their words appropriately, they should be praised and get to play with the toy.

Too long or too short.  Sometimes parents put their kid in timeout, but let them out before they’ve calmed down (timeout is too short).  Or they put them in timeout for an extended period of time and they don’t get the chance to go back to the activity (timeout is too long).  Timeouts shouldn’t necessarily be based on a time duration, but rather based on a contingency (e.g. “once you’ve calmed down you can come back,” “once you’ve calmed down and apologized, you can come back,” etc.).  If you set the timeout for one minute let’s say, and after the timer goes off the child is still upset/angry, then they’re still going to be in that state when they come out.  And that will lead to even more mischief, and probably another timeout.

If you are going to use timeouts, take these points into consideration:

Be Consistent. If you’re going to put your child in timeout each time they engage in a behavior, then make sure you put them in timeout each time the engage in that behavior! Not doing so will teach them that you don’t mean what you say.

Debrief. Go over what they did that got them in timeout as well as tell them what they should have done instead.  This can be role played or you can have them repeat it back to you if appropriate.

Follow Through.  If you told your child they need to stay until the timer goes off, make sure they stay until the timer goes off.  You’ll have to be prepared to restart the timer over and over until they’re able to sit through the entire timeout.  Don’t let them off early, no matter how much they beg or give you those puppy dog eyes.

Set the Expectation. Let your child know the rules for playing and how they should appropriately interact with their friends/siblings.  Once you’ve set the rules, it’s up to them to follow them, and they know the consequences they can expect if they don’t behave appropriately.