3 common timeout mistakes by parents and how to do it better

Parents often turn to timeouts to set their children straight, but most don't understand how to use the disciplinary tool effectively, child psychologists and pediatricians say.

Doctor 'amazed at how many 5-year-olds are actually parenting their parents' behaviour'

Sometimes children just want what they want. So parents often turn to a long-used disciplinary measure called the timeout. Oregon researchers, however, warn against using timeouts in response to kids' aggressive or destructive behaviours. (Shutterstock)

The timeout is a much-used disciplinary tool, designed to take the tempest out of a temper tantrum. But most moms and dads seem to be getting it wrong, psychologists and pediatricians say.

Researchers in Oregon who surveyed 401 parents of children 15 months to 10 years about their use of time outs to correct misbehaviour, they found 85 per cent of parents who used the technique did so in a way that runs contrary to the evidence on what works.

"What we found is that there are some pretty classic mistakes that happen at the beginning of time out, at the middle of timeout and at the end," Andrew Riley, a pediatric psychologist at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, said in an interview.

The common mistakes were:

  • Giving too many warnings.
  • Talking too much during the middle of the timeout.
  • Letting the child decide when the timeout was over.

"The whole point of timeout is that it's the opposite of time in," Riley said. It's supposed to be a period after misbehaviour — such as a temper tantrum — that's really boring.

The researchers found the most common mistake was talking too much. Riley said it may be well-intentioned to explain, but it's counterproductive during a timeout.

For a timeout to work, parents and caregivers can't administer it in an angry way because if the adult yells, the child could become upset and the procedure would lose its effectiveness.

In the study published online in the journal Academic Pediatrics, parents who used timeouts tended to use it in response to aggression or destructive behaviours.

'Deprived of mum's loving, sunny care'

Many Canadian parents also use timeouts, said Dr. Richard Haber, associate director of pediatrics at Montreal Children's Hospital. He wasn't involved in the study and has been the director of the hospital's pediatric consultation centre since 2000.

To use timeouts effectively, parents first have to let the child know the rules, in a language they understand, as well as the consequences.

The child should know, "I'm going to be deprived of mum's loving, sunny care, and be put in my room by myself," Haber said.

A child who is given a timeout should know 'they're going to be deprived of mum's loving, sunny care,' says Dr. Richard Haber, associate director of pediatrics at Montreal Children's Hospital. (CBC)

Haber said that in his practice, he can often spot a child who has been ineffectively disciplined, because when the child comes in the office and acts out, the parents seem to be helpless.

"I'm amazed at how many five-year-olds are actually parenting their parents' behaviour rather than the other way around," Haber said. "Parents have to learn to be parents and being a parent is different than being your child's friend. You're not your child's friend, you're the parent."

For parents, timeouts also offer the advantage of giving the parent time to cool off. Then, after the timeout ends, the parent and child can come back together to talk about what's happened without all of the emotion that surrounded the misbehaviour.

At a play centre in Toronto, Pat Saumur said she uses timeouts with her toddler grandchildren.

"They sit by themselves and it's not fun," Saumur said. "In the house, we make it the same place that she sits for a few minutes … and then there's always an apology after."

Haber said that instead of drawing attention to bad behaviour, caregivers should reward the behaviour they do want.

To encourage good behaviour, 83 per cent of parents in the Oregon study believed in praising and giving extra attention to children, and 69 per cent endorsed rewarding kids

A limitation of the study was its reliance on parents in just one urban community.

It was funded by the Cambia Health Foundation, the Health Resources and Services Administration Graduate Psychology Education Program, and the U.S. National Institute of Health. 

With files from CBC's Christine Birak and Reuters


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