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Did Your Parents Ever Put You in Timeout?

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Timeout is outdated parenting method

Discover why some experts believe putting your child in timeout is not a good parenting method and offer this advice as an alternative parenting skill.


Parenting for most of us is a mix of OJT (on the job training) and what we experienced at the hands of our parents. Good parenting, however, requires a more open-minded approach to look beyond what we feel is right at the moment and have experienced in the past.

For the older generation, Dad's belt--built on the foundation of "Spare the rod, spoil the child"--was the typical and accepted parenting method of the time. For the following generation, (perhaps still feeling the sting of leather) we patted ourselves on our collective backs for having evolved as parents and swore off never to strike our children, but instead pointed them to a corner or space devoid of toys and other distractions and told them they were being "timed out" until further notice.

But now, the newer generation of parents is getting the message that putting a child in timeout is still not the correct way to handle a child's behavior.

In a recent CNN "Go ASK YOUR DAD" parenting column by the editorial director of CNN Health, Wellness and Parenting David G. Allan, Mr. Allan tells us that "…it's time to add the timeout to the parental dust bin of history, along with yelling, hitting and missing school in order to help run the farm."

He points out that the fundamental failure of the timeout is that essentially whenever a parent places a child in timeout, he or she is being abandoned physically and emotionally when the child needs their parent the most. And why this works so well (in the short term at least) with a young child is that it plays on the psychological fear of abandonment; or, what some health experts refer to as "love withdrawal" because that is how a child may perceive the timeout--not only are you taking the things away he or she loves like their toys, but the parents' love as well.

In one referenced article Mr. Allan points to, this kind of emotional disciplining has several serious disadvantages as explained by Aletha Solter, Ph.D. in "The Disadvantages of Time-Out."

In it she writes that "Time-out stems from the behaviorist movement based on the work of psychologist B.F. Skinner. His theory of operant conditioning asserts that children will behave in certain ways if they receive rewards for doing so ("positive reinforcement"), and that undesirable behavior can be diminished by withholding the rewards or by invoking pain (both of which are termed "punishment")."

What may have prompted parents to accept timeout as an acceptable parenting method is that it was easy to see from their parent's generation that corporal punishment really does not work and tends to create some emotional misgivings between the adult parent and the adult child years later.

Another point regarding timeout is that the word itself has pleasant connotations of a sports team taking a well-deserved break that makes the parenting method appear harmless as stated in in "The Disadvantages of Time-Out."

While some parents may temper the timeout with the reminder that they "still love them, but not what they are being punished for," when placing the child in timeout; again, it's a matter of perception by the child is what matters. In this case, the action of abandonment overrides their capacity to understand your platitudes.

So, what are the disadvantages of timeout? Here is a summarized list from "The Disadvantages of Time-Out":

1. Nothing is more frightening for a child than the withdrawal of love; In the child's realm of experience, time-out is nothing short of punitive.

2. The message timeout gives a child is that love and attention are commodities to be doled out or withheld for purposes of controlling others.

3. At some point being timed out stops working and the follow-up method of "grounding" pre-teens and teens only leads to resentment, resistance, and deceit.

4. Any parenting method based on power and authoritarianism must eventually be abandoned because quite simply, parents eventually will lose that power to a growing child.

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5. The use of timeout does not address the underlying cause of the behavior the parent is attempting to control.

6. Timeouts deny the child the need to express what they are feeling. Letting it out has therapeutic value for the child as they learn to handle their own frustrations in life.

So, what is a parent to do? It's tough. And as pointed out by Ms. Solter, "It is paradoxical, yet true: children are most in need of loving attention when they act least deserving of it."

According to Mr. Allan, the answer is "time-ins"--the method of "fight the urge to push your troubled kid away and work to embrace them instead…when you remove the option of distance and solitude, you have no choice but to engage."

Points Recommended for Time-in

1. Calm down (both the parent and child) by taking a few deep breaths.

2. Approach "time-in" as a method the parent and child can work together on solving the problem.

3. Listen to the child's version of what is going on with patience and let them say what is on their mind until they are finished.

4. Consider that there could be mitigating factors such as the child feeling hungry, angry, lonely, tired, stressed or sick. Are we as adults any different in how we behave or feel with such factors in the background?

5. After listening to the child, try reflecting their feelings back to them. For example, "You feel sad that the playdate has to end." "That's so frustrating when a plan doesn't work out like we hoped."

6. It the child or teen timeouts themselves--let them, give them some time and space, then check on them to let them know you are still there for them.

The purpose of this parenting method is that it shows the child that you do care about them and what is going on in their lives. And, it also helps them learn to be mindful of their own natural feelings, needs, and how to go about dealing with them in a healthy way.

No parenting method works all the time, every time. But that's what makes parents the best teachers for their children--it shows that sometimes even we do not get everything right the first time around. And as long as we keep our children close to us, they may forgive us for our transgressions as well.


CNN Health "Time is up for timeouts"

Awareparenting.com "The Disadvantages of Time-Out" by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.

Image Source: Pixabay