The Medical Minute: How parents can use ‘timeouts’ effectively

March 18, 2015

Whether dealing with a 2-year-old’s tantrum or a 6-year-old’s refusal to clean up after herself, many adults have, at some point, pulled a timeout from their bag of discipline tools.

When used effectively, a timeout can train children to behave in acceptable ways. The problem is that not all grown-ups know when or how to use the timeout to their advantage.

Many follow conventional wisdom that when a child demonstrates unacceptable behavior, he or she should be separated from the activity for a number of minutes equal to his or her age.

Brian Allen, a child psychologist at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital, suggests considering the reason for the child’s misbehavior first. If the behavior is attention-seeking, a strategy known as active ignoring or selective listening may be more appropriate.

A child who is told that she can’t have ice cream may throw a tantrum in hopes of getting his or her way. If she cries long enough and loud enough, the frazzled adult may give in, she figures.

Instead, Allen suggests adults ignore the drama. Walk away or pop in headphones with soothing music to calm the nerves and create the perception that you are ignoring the child while still monitoring the situation for safety.

“If you are no longer engaged, it will eventually stop,” he said.

Eventually could mean three minutes — or even a half-hour — later. But it will happen.

Timeouts are most effective when they teach children what you want them to do instead of what they are doing.

“Otherwise, they may stop doing the behavior now, but they haven’t actually learned anything new,” Allen said.

Children who refuse to go into — or remain in — timeout, or who move their meltdown to wherever they have an audience, may be seeking attention and might be better served with the active ignoring technique first.

A child who refuses to respond to reasonable requests to clean up his toys may be sent to sit quietly in timeout until he is ready to do what was asked. The adult can periodically check in to see if the child is ready to comply.

“If the child continues to protest, or starts a big discussion about the subject again, you can simply say, ‘OK, I’ll ask you again in a few minutes,’” Allen said. “Then the conversation is done and you don’t talk to them anymore.”

The key is that the child must complete the task or change the behavior.

“If you have asked them to clean something up, but then you put them in timeout and go clean it up yourself, they don’t learn anything,” Allen said.

Timeouts are most effective when used sparingly, in an environment where the child is receiving praise and having mostly positive interactions with adults. “If they are in timeout five times a day and never get good feedback or praise, they are not going to care,” Allen said. “The timeout is about hating that they don’t have that positive attention.”

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 25, 2015