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As a clinical psychologist, published author, and mother to two cheeky young children, I get it. I’ve spent YEARS researching and filtering through the noise online, so you don’t have to.
A common question I get is “Dr. Jazmine, do you recommend time-outs for toddlers or preschoolers? What’s your whole perspective on this?”
When it comes to discipline and helping your child make good choices, learn new behaviors, and teach lagging skills, there are many approaches out there.
As a clinical psychologist, I am a fan of teaching parents a wide variety of tools, tips, and tricks. Not only because all our approaches are different, but because what works one day might not work another day. Or what works for one child or family might not work for your child and family. So you need a variety of tools so you can feel more confident supporting your child.
In the parenting community – specifically the positive parenting community – there is an argument that you shouldn’t put your child in time-outs. The argument is that it’s bad for the relationship, and you should instead do time-ins to connect with your child. You should focus on that when they’re struggling and having a hard time versus putting them in a time-out.
But there is a lot of conflicting information out there, and it can be confusing. Especially if you’ve done a time-out and you feel like it works or it feels like it’s in line with your overall approach.
As a clinical psychologist, I was trained on how to teach parents how to give a time-out. I trained at UC Davis through a treatment approach called Parent-Child Interaction Therapy. I learned to coach parents live in the room and in the moment. And I trained them on how to learn a script, how to learn a certain way to use the time-out with their child.
Time-outs have gotten a bad rep because they’re often used incorrectly, done out of anger, or there are missing steps.
I want to share a quote I came across. It says, “The severe punishment and social isolation that is commonly done in the name of time-outs is harmful.”
In 2014, he co-wrote an article about time-outs. And what he did was highlight brain imaging research that found social exclusion and physical pain trigger similar patterns of brain activity. He also wrote that isolating a child in time-outs may deny the child’s profound need for connection during times of distress, while some varieties of time-outs are appropriate.
Let’s read that again: While some varieties of time-outs are appropriate – brief, infrequent, and involving care and kindness – time-outs that isolate a child are inappropriate.
I want to share another study with you before I get into the tips and tricks for time-outs. There was a study done in 2019 and published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. It was based on 1,400 families analyzing the developmental data of kids beginning at around age 3 continuing up to when the kids reach 11 and 12.
They found that among the families who reported using time-outs as discipline, kids were not at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, aggression, rule-breaking behaviors, or self-control problems when compared to those who came from families that did not do time-outs. Creativity scores were also the same regardless of whether a family used time-outs.
The assistant professor Rachel Knight at the University of Michigan wrote that no matter how they weighed or controlled the data, they found no evidence that using time-outs was associated with bad outcomes.
There’s research out there supporting and not supporting time-outs, and with all things parenting, do your research. Find an approach that works for you, and most importantly, your child.
The thing about consequences is that it’s nuanced. No one consequence is going to get every single behavior. There are so many tools you need to have in your toolbox because not everything is going to work for every situation.
You need to use what works in that moment with your child, with their age and stage, and with the situation. Therefore, time-outs don’t work in every situation.
Be very clear about what behavior warrants a time-out and what behavior doesn’t.
My rule of thumb is that time-outs are appropriate for not listening but are not appropriate during times of distress, tantrums, or aggression. Providing time-outs during episodes of intense emotions only exacerbates your child’s emotions and leads to more parent-child disconnection.
Time-outs should never be in your child’s room or where they are closed off from a part of the family. Time-outs should be in a certain location.
So you are going to want to decide where that location should be, but it should be where you can see your child.
You should know what they’re doing when they’re in a time-out, just like they should know what you’re doing when they’re in a time-out. I’m not saying you’re interacting with your toddler or preschooler during a time-out. But you should not be secluding them in a separate room or their room. You don’t want to associate their room with negative feelings.
Make sure you know beforehand where you’re going to have the time-outs and for how long. Generally, the shorter the better.
The thing is, nobody wants to sit in a time-out. You’re going to get some pushback from your child, and that’s okay. This is why you need to have a plan for what you’re going to do when they refuse to sit in time-out.
Time-outs are best used when they are intentional and when you have a plan in place. In an ideal world, all the caregivers for your toddler will be on the same page about the plan, so that everybody’s implementing it consistently. But you can have your own style, you can have your own plan, and do it that way.
You’re going to be robotic, and you’re going to use a script that will help you avoid becoming angry. That’s why I teach parents a script: what to say, how to say it, when to say it, and when to zip your lips.
The best tool for parenting is your relationship with your child. That’s where the good work happens: when you have a loving, connected relationship.
That’s why I will always teach that first and save the time-outs for the very last. The time-outs are like the icing on the cake, for certain things in certain situations and not for every misbehavior.
And time-outs are definitely not your main parenting tool.
Your main parenting tool is always going to be your relationship with your child, connecting with them, making sure you’re spending one-on-one playtime with them. You should implement time-outs in the context of a loving relationship.
This, in turn, increases the likelihood your child will listen to you and follow your directions. Time-outs are just another tool in your parenting toolbox to make you a more confident parent.
If you need more help, I have a free workshop, How to Get Your Kids to Listen Without Yelling, where we work through discipline and setting consequences with intention and respect.
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As a clinical psychologist, published author, and mother to three young children, I get it. I’ve spent YEARS researching and filtering through the noise online, so you don’t have to.