News You Can Use: Timeouts Effective Tools—If You Know How to Use Them

By Dawn Van Osdell

The trend of “positive parenting” tends to poo-poo punishing a child, but research presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention shows that a good old-fashioned timeout can be an effective discipline technique.

The trick to its effectiveness is to use it correctly—meaning, don’t use it too often, let kids know ahead of time which infractions will warrant one, and be sure to follow through. It shouldn’t be the only behavior-correcting tool in your arsenal, though. There are times when other techniques do a better job at teaching kids how to behave.

“Parental discipline and positive parenting techniques are often polarized in popular parenting resources and in parenting research conclusions,” says Robert Larzelere, PhD, of Oklahoma State University, and a presenter at the APA conference. “But scientifically supported parenting interventions for young defiant children have found that timeouts and other types of assertive tactics can work if they’re administered correctly.”

To determine this, researchers interviewed more than 100 mothers who provided detailed descriptions of instances where they had to discipline their toddlers for negative behaviors, such as hitting, whining, defiance, negotiating, or not listening.  They found that, for immediate results, there are more effective discipline tools than punishment. For instance:

  • Compromise is the most effective tactic for immediate behavior improvements, regardless of the type of behavior.
  • Reasoning is your best tool when reacting to mildly annoying behaviors, such as negotiating or whining.
  • Punishments—including timeouts and taking away something—were effective when dealing with a child who was acting defiant or hitting. They didn’t work so well for negotiating and whining.

If you’re looking for longer-term improvements in your child’s behavior—and who isn’t? —consider this: When the researchers interviewed the same moms two months later, they found that those who offered compromises too frequently to the children who were hitting or acting defiant said their children were acting worse. Reasoning got them the best results over time for these children, even though it was the least effective response immediately. A moderate use of timeouts and other punishments—used less than 16 percent of the time—led to improved behavior for the defiant children.

Another researcher and conference presenter, Ennio Cipani, PhD, of National University, concurred that timeouts are effective if and when the time is right for issuing one. “Our clinical case findings have shown that timeout used consistently for select behaviors and situations significantly reduced problem behaviors over time,” he said.

To sum it up, don’t dismiss the age-old timeout altogether. Just make sure you figure out when to use it wisely on your little ones, who are learning the ropes—just as you are.