Are "Time-Outs" Good For Kids? Experts Weigh In

by Myla Cruz

Are time-outs necessary? Are they even effective? Are they cruel?

Researchers have recently weighed in on whether the act of using "time-outs" — that is, a punishment usually characterized by isolating a child for a set amount of time — are an effective form of discipline or an emotionally painful punishment for children. This leaves parents a lot to consider when deciding whether or not to adopt the practice. Here are the current leading opinions from experts: 

Support for Time-Outs

For the last several decades, researchers have shown strong support for time-outs as a form of discipline —especially as an alternative to forms of corporal punishments such as spankings — when used correctly. "Time-out is a punishment procedure, so its only goal is to suppress a misbehavior," said researcher Mark Roberts. The professor of clinical psychology at Idaho State University, who has researched time-outs extensively, noted, "consequently, time-out is always part of a larger treatment package."

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Studying the long-term effects of varying discipline practices can be difficult, especially if a child has been affected by abrasive or abusive forms of punishment, like spanking. Nevertheless, researchers tackling the problem in varying groups of children with varying backgrounds have consistently found that spanking is likely to create more problems than it solves. A 1990 study published in the book Straight and Devious Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood by Lee N. Robins concludes that experiencing "power-assertive" punishments is the strongest predictor of aggression and delinquency in adolescence — even more so than living in a high-crime neighborhood or having a parent with sociopathic tendencies.    

A 2010 review of 30 years of time-out research, published in the journal Education and Treatment of Children concludes that time-outs are effective at both home and school and that it can work with all children including those with special needs. However, criticism on the topic does still exist.

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Critics of Time-Out 

Some critics say that timeout is harsh and causes emotional pain for the child. "There are a number of mistakes that are made when using timeout, and probably one of the biggest ones is parents don't specify a behavior that timeout will be used for consistently and reliably," says Ennio Cipani, a California-based clinical psychologist and author of the book Punishment on Trial.

In 2014, an article was published in TIME Magazine by UCLA psychiatrist Daniel Siegel and colleague Tina Payne Bryson titled "Time-Outs Are Hurting Your Child.” The piece cited research showing that social pain, such as that of isolation, activates the same areas in the brain as physical pain. The research they cited, however, studied the brain’s of college students kept from playing a videogame, overlooking aspects of punishment and long-term effects of the experience of social pain.

Changing their tune in a follow-up, Siegel and Bryson clarified that the research on "appropriate" timeouts shows them to be effective.

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So What Does an Appropriate Time-Out Look Like?

First, researchers conclude it is important to maintain a warm and loving parent-child relationship regardless of your time-out philosophy. It’s then essentially necessary to avoid ignoring your child or treating them badly, as opposed to seeing the time-out as a form of time spent away from something they enjoy. This creates an environment where children learn how to have fun in appropriate, safe ways.  

According to Roberts, time-outs are best for children aged 2-6, while older children are better served by consequence-based punishments, such as the removal of privileges. Cipriani recommends parents pick one or two behaviors — such as disobeying direct requests or backtalk — and make very clear to children what behaviors will result in a time-out for best results. Like all other parenting issues, how to approach this form of discipline truly comes down to a judgement call. 

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Tell us in the comments: Do you use time-outs with your children? Why or why not?

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