Timeouts - my approach
Rees Chapman, Ph.D.
March 2010

Punishment is almost always the worst way to discourage problematic actions by children.  While grounding, confiscation, and spanking may manipulate a child's behavior for a moment in some desired way, the child is even more likely to engage in some problematic behaviors later.  (This is because the problematic behavior is being reinforced - albeit not rewarded - and given power by the strength of the parents' reaction to it.)  Timeouts are generally more effective, although the way they are used by most parents often makes things worse.

When Bubba is starting to act up, his mother Betty fears she is losing control (again!), and grabs desperately at some means of restoring her power.  She widens her eyes, furrows her brow, deepens her voice, and loudly declares "you're in Time Out!  And its 9 minutes, because you're 9 years old!"  Bubba, remembering how badly the last few timeouts were handled, scrunches up his face and stomps his feet and howls "NO!  I won't go!"  And suddenly, the interaction is a conflict about Betty's disciplinary consequences, not helping Bubba avoid acting up.

I begin by redefining the idea of timeout as stopping and redirecting behaviors which may become problematic.  Bubba is to take time out from what he is starting to do wrong, but just enough time to consider better options.  Thus, timouts work best when they are as brief as possible.  I hold that the minute for every year of age rule that most parents have been told to use is a very bad idea.  If the purpose of a timeout is punitive, then longer timeouts for older kids makes sense, but remember: we want to avoid resorting to punishment.  So, Bubba is told to sit or stand calmly and quietly where he is at that moment, perhaps to take a few deep breaths, and to answer questions like these: "What are you about to do that you know you shouldn't?" and "What would be better for you to do?"  With this approach, a timeout can be finished in a matter of seconds, and Bubba comes to regard it as a useful tool for controlling himself, rather than an adversive punishment to be resisted.

Children who have come to expect timeouts to last five or ten minutes or more will have quite negative impressions of them.  So, I usually have the family rehearse them in a therapy session.  I pretend to be starting to act up (such as making a loud ugly sound), and the mom walks me through a timeout using my approach.  Next, the child practices the procedure by putting his mom in timeout for some contrived misbehavior.  After I put the child in a similar practiced timeout, the family is encouraged to rehearse it at home a few times.
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