Time Magazine’s Time Out Debate

A recent article in Time Magazine entitled “Time Outs Are Hurting Your Child” stated that the use of Time Out as a disciplinary tool “can look the same as physical abuse” on a brain scan. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, the authors of a new book entitled No Drama Discipline, argue that at the very moment when our children are emotionally distressed and need our comfort the most, we isolate and abandon them. The authors’ approach is based on the Attachment Theory of Parenting, which states that children who undergo emotional distress have a need to be soothed by the people they trust. This assertion led to an outpouring of emails and discussion board posts by respected psychologists from the American Psychological Association who stated that Time Out is one of the most researched disciplinary techniques in child psychology. The academic psychologists went on to state that “it is a disservice to the public to suggest that families try an unproven approach when one with decades of support is available.” The old days of “spare the rod and spoil the child” have been replaced by more humane, scientific parenting. So, who are parents to believe? Do they side with the best-selling authors or do they trust the opinion of a bunch of academic psychologists?

The truth is, both parties hold some of the truth. Time Out is an excellent tool for your parenting toolbox, but it is not the only tool. Informed parents know how to match the parenting technique to the type of parenting challenge that they are facing. So what are the common parenting challenges and which tool do I need?

Here are the most common parenting challenges: Failure to Complete Tasks; Noncompliance; Defiance; Emotional Distress; Aggression Toward Others. Let’s think of them as a hierarchy from least intense to most intense.

  1. Failure to Complete Tasks.  When children are assigned tasks and they do not complete them, there is a breakdown in the message that the child is getting or the reinforcement is not strong enough.  No calling across the house and expecting the task to get completed.  Be sure that you go to your child before you issue a command.  Make eye contact and get within arms length of your child, call their name, wait for them to look at you, then issue the command. Once the task is complete, provide praise.  If that is not enough, a tangible or edible reward may be required.  No time out needed!
  2. Noncompliance.  Contrary to the first example, noncompliance may involve a child being unable to complete the task due to a developmental or learning problem.  If you are following the steps above for issuing a clear command and providing reinforcement, perhaps there is a reason that the child cannot comply.  Further evaluation is warranted before becoming more punitive.
  3. Defiance.  In this example, the child has demonstrated the ability to perform the task and is choosing to defy the parent.  Perhaps they do not want to stop the video game.  In this example, time out is appropriate.  Time out actually means “time out from positive reinforcement.”  This means that we want to cease the desired activity, ignore their behavior, and have the child serve a brief period of isolation. After the brief Time Out is served, the child can return to the scene and comply with the instructions.  Sitting the child on the floor mat in the foyer, not their room, while using the kitchen timer for 2-5 minutes is generally effective for preschoolers and elementary aged children.  This may precipitate an emotional meltdown.  For that scenario, read on.
  4. Emotional Distress.  The underlying problem in emotional meltdowns is the inability to effectively express feelings of distress.  Here we want to soothe the child.  Having a child continue in Time Out for over 15 minutes while having a meltdown is the type of abandonment that the authors alluded to.  The approach here is to provide the child an emotional vocabulary and to use active listening skills to promote better parent-child communication.  However, you cannot teach these skills in the middle of a meltdown because the child is not available for teaching.  This is no different from teaching new math skills to a frustrated student.  Developing an emotional vocabulary must be done before the meltdown.  You can then use the emerging emotional vocabulary to have a debriefing and to help the child see you as a source of comfort.
  5. Aggression Toward Others.  Aggression is generally a result of a combination of a developmental variation and the lack of an emotional vocabulary.  The best intervention is to seek professional help.

At Family Psychology Associates, we provide parent training workshops on effective discipline and parent-child communication skills.  We also provide evaluation and treatment for all behavioral disorders and learning disabilities including AD/HD and Autism Spectrum Disorders.  Finally, we offer social skills training for children who have a hard time maintaining friendships.  These services are currently available in both our Safety Harbor and Trinity locations.