Time Outs: Should You Dump Them for Good?

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September 9, 2011

Time outs are a part of nearly every parent’s discipline arsenal as we strive for a peaceful home … but honestly, do they really work?

Many experts say no. Time outs may work in the short term, they say, but in the long run don’t help children learn to make better behavioral choices.

“Time outs build control struggles between parent and child,” says Dr. Lynne Kenney, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based pediatric psychologist. “Using time-outs means we are in damage control mode – waiting for something to go wrong before we deal with it.”

So if not the usual reactionary time-out, what’s a parent to do? How do we prevent time outs, and get kids to behave?

Time In: An Ounce of Prevention

An idea that’s been gaining momentum in child behavior circles, time in is more than simply spending time with your children, says New York City-based child psychotherapist Ava Parnass.

Instead, time ins are “calm, playful and instructive exchanges” between parent and child that help kids prepare emotionally for difficult situations, says Parnass. Using the principles of positive parenting, time in helps parents guide children in learning how to solve problems, and understanding the feelings that might cause misbehavior.

In short, “time in keeps things from building up and exploding, leading to too many time-outs,” says Parnass, author of Listen to Me Please! Time In Not Time Out.

The key to time in is to have routine conversations with your children at a time of day when they naturally want to connect with you – such as bedtime, during dinner, or in the car on your way to school. Then, says Parnass, it’s time for parents to become “feelings detectives.”

Becoming a “Feelings Detective”

To get kids talking, parents know it takes more than a quick “How was your day?” flung over a shoulder while rushing to make dinner. And if you’re trying to get to the root of some problem behavior, the task can prove even more difficult.

“We need to learn to uncover the exact series of events which provoked certain feelings, or brought on unwanted behaviors,’” says Parnass. To do that, she recommends using questions as conversation-starters:

  • Do you feel like it’s hard to say goodbye or goodnight?
  • Are you excited to go to school, but finding it hard to leave me?
  • Was something hard for you today?
  • Do you feel like we didn’t spend enough time together today?
  • Did your teacher (or parent) promise something, then not keep the promise?
  • Are you in a bad mood and uncooperative because you missed me (or someone else) today?
  • Does it seem like I’m not listening, or not interested?

Dr. Kenney agrees. “Collaborating with your children helps kids feel heard, secure, and skillful,” she says. “And secure kids who are adept at dealing with the emotions that underlie their behavior are less likely to act out or make poor behavioral choices.”

Transitioning From Time Out to Time In

Because time outs and other punitive methods are “ubiquitous” in our culture, making the transition from a time out to a time in habit may be challenging for families, says Parnass.

In their upcoming e-book, Time In NOT Time Out, Kenney, Parnass and Michigan-based colleague Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD outline several tips to help parents make the switch:

  • Instead of time out, dig for emotional clues. Know that many kids are unaware of their feelings, and how they might be connected to their upset. Instead of immediately implementing a time out, ask your child questions like, “Are your feelings hurt?” Give them choices, like “Are you disappointed that your friend couldn’t play today?”
  • Ask, “Can my child do as I’m asking at this moment in time?” When your child is in meltdown mode, consider: Has he eaten and slept well? Does he have the words to express how he feels? Does he have the skills to do as I’ve asked? Did we practice using alternate behaviors before the meltdown, when my child was calm?
  • Be aware of your child’s “emotional thermostat.” How does she typically respond to different events? How well is she able to regulate her responses to difficult situations? What types of incidents set your child off? What feelings is he experiencing that led to the moment when the upset occurred?
  • Encourage, praise and reward. “Constantly telling children, ‘Don’t do that!’ doesn’t work,” says Parnass. “They learn nothing, and are rewarded with negative attention for their behavior.” Instead, she says, stay on the lookout for the good moments and praise them.
  • Push the “stop button.” When your child misbehaves, calmly tell him he can push the stop button, or “freeze” the moment in time, says Dr. Kenney. Then, offer the child an opportunity to choose a new word or behavior, or to step away from the conflict. You may need to offer them the new word or behavior, she says. Then, it’s also important to repair the relationship by apologizing and making the other person in the conflict feel better.

Join the conversation – do time outs work for you? Do you think it’s possible to get rid of time outs? Do you feel like you’re always handing out punishments for the same problem behavior? We’d love to hear from you!

More parenting resources are available here: LynneKenney.com, Kidlutions.com and ListenToMePlease.com.

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