Why Time-Outs Are Bad

By Nicole Gregory

Your toddler pokes his sister for the fourth time in 10 minutes, throws himself on the floor in a fit of rage when you turn off the television or deliberately pours milk on the new rug. Exasperated, you send your child to his room and administer a 10-minute “timeout.” While this swift action may feel right to you at the moment, experts say that when a time-out is used strictly as punishment, it is ineffective and can, in fact, backfire.

“Punishment is not helpful in shaping a toddler’s behavior,” says Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., coauthor of Raising a Self-Disciplined Child. “If the toddler didn’t have the skill to handle the situation in the first place, then punishment is not going to make him more competent.”

So before you banish your toddler to another room, take a minute to consider what he is feeling. “Maybe this kid is overwhelmed easily and he’s had too much stimulation. Another child took his toy and he doesn’t know yet how to deal with frustration,” says Claire Lerner, LCSW, a child development specialist with Zero To Three, a national nonprofit organization that promotes healthy development of toddlers and their families. “These are times for support and learning, when you can have a big impact on shaping your child’s development,” says Lerner.

What works, what doesn’t
What is a compassionate, effective timeout? It could be holding your tot in your lap, away from her sister she’s been poking, or in a chair in another room for a few minutes when she refuses to pick up her toys. Goldstein says “time-out” originates in psychological literature as “time out from reinforcement,” meaning removing the child from whatever is reinforcing the unwanted behavior. One mistake parents make with timeouts is to say “Okay, you’re free now” when the one or two minutes are up, says Goldstein.

Time-outs work best when you bring the child right back into the setting and guide her to negotiate it differently. “You could say, ‘I want you to help me pick up your blocks,’” Goldstein advises. “If she says ‘No!’ then calmly say, ‘Okay, we’re going to another time-out.’”