“Punishment is a widely misunderstood, chronically misused, and wildly overused method for changing behavior, but when properly employed it can be effective…within limits.”
-Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., founder of the Yale Child Conduct Clinic
Not long ago, a parent of a young child I was working with provided me with an unsolicited synopsis of a parenting book they recently read. The author of this book reportedly recommended that timeouts for children should start at one hour in duration and increase in 30-minute increments each time the behavioral infraction occurs. I wish I could write how shocked I was to learn that such misinformed parenting advice was in circulation. Sadly, however, I have become inured to examples such as this. Timeouts have become a first line tactic for parents eager to address their child’s behavioral problems. Pediatricians are often tasked with teaching parents healthy and effective strategies for addressing childhood behavioral issues. While timeouts certainly have their place in generating healthy behavioral changes in children, they are not without limits. In this article, I discuss what we know about timeouts, when parents should use them, and more importantly how parents should implement them.
Grow Grass in Place of the Weed
Despite the popularization of timeouts, they account for a relatively small portion of a behavioral program. The most critical factor in changing a negative behavior is rewarding that behavior’s positive counterpart; or “growing the grass.” For example, say a parent gives their 4-year-old a timeout in response to episodes of physical aggression. Sure, the parent is punishing this negative behavior (i.e., getting rid of the weeds), but if the parent does not grow grass in place of these weeds, the negative behavior will inevitably reappear. In other words, punishment, when used alone, leads to a mere temporary suppression of an undesirable behavior. In the example above, if the parent issues a timeout for physical aggression, they should simultaneously “grow the grass” with praise and reinforcement for behaviors that reflect the positive opposite of physical aggression (e.g., keeping hands to self, using words when upset, etc.)
Success is in the Details
While various parenting books may suggest otherwise, there is no such thing as a magical, one-size-fits-all timeout length. In general, time-outs work best when brief, lasting 2-3 minutes, and never exceeding 10 minutes. Timeouts are more effective for younger children (i.e., ages 2-7) and should take place in an area with little to no stimulation (e.g., TV, electronics, etc.). Parents are advised to remain calm when implementing a timeout. The angrier parents are, the less effective the timeout becomes. I am often asked, “what if my child refuses to go in a timeout?” This is not uncommon, and I always advise parents to practice timeouts with their child and praise their child for complying with a timeout (sounds ridiculous, I know, but it’s important). Nonetheless, if a child does not comply, parents should calmly add an extra minute. Parents are advised to only do this one more time before pivoting away from timeout and removing a privilege instead.
Parents should use timeouts sparingly. As discussed above, parents are advised to focus far more on reinforcing and rewarding positive behaviors. I typically advise parents to choose a range of 1-3 behaviors that will warrant a timeout. Parents should ensure the behavior is defined clearly. For example, hitting a family member is a clearly defined behavior, whereas “acting up” is vague and imprecise. Lastly, parents are better off choosing a behavior that occurs no more than once or twice a day. If parents are punishing a negative behavior multiple times per day, they are wise to shift their focus to rewarding and reinforcing that behavior’s positive opposite.
About the Author
Sam Marzouk, Ph.D., L.P. is a pediatric psychologist and owner of Promethean Psychology in Edina, Minnesota. In addition to his routine clinical work, Dr. Marzouk also enjoys providing trainings on pediatric mental health to pediatricians and other pediatric medical providers.