Timeout is a time-honored parenting technique. Yet a quick Internet search can pull up many different opinions, ranging from the technique being useful to extremely harmful.
I reviewed the research literature on the subject. As recently as 2011, the Journal of Child and Family Studies published an article by Alina Morawska and Matthew Sanders finding that timeout is still a useful parenting technique if used correctly. This study reinforces the CDC's 2009 recommendation that parenting programs include an aspect of education on the proper use of timeout.
In order to use timeout correctly, Morawska and Sanders detail a number of factors that need to be present.
Positive parent-child environment
The first requirement is a positive, warm relationship between parent and child. Otherwise, the timeout is often experienced as shunning and love withdrawal. Parents should work toward building such a relationship with their children. Using positive attention, praise and rewards helps build that relationship, but the best way to develop this is having unstructured positive time with your child.
Used in association with other strategies
The second requirement is to use timeout in connection with other parenting strategies. One of the biggest predictors of timeout failing is using the technique as the only parenting technique for handling misbehavior. Reward charts, work chores, privilege removal and collaborative problem-solving are all great techniques. When the combination of parenting strategies is used with timeout, there is a greater likelihood of successfully decreasing behavior problems.
Correct implementation of timeout
Last but definitely not least is the proper implementation of timeout. Some of the negative opinions reinforce the notion that timeout needs to be implemented properly. In fact, most of the negative opinions are because timeout is misused or misunderstood. The timeout procedure was originally called "timeout from positive reinforcement." Shortening the name of the technique to just "timeout" loses a bit of its meaning. To effectively implement timeout, research shows that less time is better, and a contingency needs to be in place before the child is allowed to leave timeout. That is, children need to exhibit good behavior for a specified period of time, usually two minutes before they can leave.
Some general guidelines from a number of sources are below:
The location: Timeout needs to be held in an uninteresting part of the house that is safe. The child's room, closet or bathroom are all bad locations. For younger children (between ages 2-6), the location should be within eyesight of the parent. Most children do well in a designated chair that is far enough away from the family and anything interesting but easily monitored to ensure compliance ("Defiant Children" by Russell A. Barkley).
The length: Research shows that timeout that goes for long periods of time is ineffective. Most evidenced-based parenting interventions recommend anything up to 10 minutes. Anything over 10 minutes is not recommended ("Antisocial Behavior in Children and Adolescents" by John B. Reid, Gerald R. Patterson and James J. Snyder).
When to use: Because timeout is a removal of the child from family time, it should be used on specific behaviors (start with one or two) in the categories of deliberate opposition, dangerous or destructive behavior, or violations of important family values ("Preventive Parenting with Love, Encouragement and Limits," Thomas J. Dishion and Scot G. Patterson). It is also important to remember not to put children in timeout for expressing emotion. When children express emotion, it is best to first use "emotion coaching," as described by John Gottman ("Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child," Gottman).
How to use: When children perform the behavior you want to use timeout for, inform them they will go to timeout for one minute if they do not stop that behavior. If they continue the behavior after about 10 seconds, instruct them to go to timeout. Every five to 10 seconds they do not go, increase the time by one minute increments, up to 10 minutes. Start a timer (on your phone, microwave, etc.) for the specified amount of time once they are in the designated spot ("Preventive Parenting with Love, Encouragement and Limits," Dishion and Patterson).
How to end: While children are in timeout, occasionally glance over at them to make sure they are being compliant (sitting in the spot, not playing), but do not give them any more attention. If they are still making noise or misbehaving, remind them they will need to stay in timeout until they are compliant. Make sure they are compliant for at least two minutes before being allowed to come out of timeout. Once the time is finished, talk briefly with the child about the behavior, remind them why they went to timeout, then get them involved in something positive with you and the rest of the family ("Defiant Children," Barkley).
Ensuring success: Walking children through the routine of how timeout will be and informing them of the specific behaviors they will be put in timeout for during a period when they are not misbehaving can help increase instances of success. When you tell children they need to go to timeout, it is extremely important to do so calmly and without malice. As with many other parenting techniques, continued practice and consistency increases the likelihood of success ("Preventive Parenting with Love, Encouragement and Limits, Dishion and Patterson).
Those who are concerned about the possible negative consequences of using timeout should be comforted to know that Morawska and Sanders found no evidence to suggest negative outcomes. In fact, the authors cited evidence to suggest continued positive outcomes up to three years after parents participated in parenting programs where timeout was one technique taught.
It certainly appears that timeout is in fact still useful.
Michael is a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University. He teaches about marriage and family life in the Lansing community. Contact him for more information at Michael@ActualityFT.com.