When Amy and Steve Unruh decided to adopt a four-year-old child from the Philippines, they anticipated challenges. They understood it would take time, as well as a great deal of love and care, for their family and its newest member to adjust. But they were committed to helping a child in need.
The Unruh’s were blindsided when their adoption application was turned down. The reason, they were told, was that their parenting style was not suitable for an adopted child. “They said it was because we’ve used time-outs with our daughter,” says Amy Unruh, 43, who is a stay-at-home mom in Milton, Florida. During her interview with the adoption agency, she’d explained that, when her biological daughter misbehaves and doesn’t respond to verbal warnings, she is occasionally sent to her room or told to sit quietly in a chair for five minutes. “They told us this was isolating and not appropriate for an adopted child—or for any child,” Unruh says. “We were devastated.”
Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry promote time-outs as an effective parenting strategy. Among kids with oppositional defiant disorder or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder—the two most commonly diagnosed causes of disruptive behavior in children—research has found that time-outs can help correct problem behaviors.
But recently, some prominent child psychologists have raised doubts about the safety and efficacy of time-outs, especially those involving sending a child to their room or otherwise cutting them off from contact with other people.
“The severe punishment and social isolation that is commonly done in the name of time-outs” is harmful, says Dr. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. In a 2014 piece he co-wrote for TIME, Siegel highlighted brain-imaging research that found social exclusion and physical pain trigger similar patterns of brain activity. He also wrote that isolating a child in time-out may deny the child’s “profound need for connection” during times of distress. While some varieties of time-out are appropriate—namely, those that are brief and infrequent, those that involve “care and kindness,” and those that do not isolate a child—Siegel says that, in practice, time-outs are often administered inappropriately.
Time-Outs vs. Time-Ins
The adoption agency that rejected the Unruhs’ application recommended that Amy and Steve read Siegel’s book Parenting from the Inside Out. The same agency also advised the Unruhs to explore a method of parenting called Trust-Based Relational Intervention, or TBRI, developed at Texas Christian University. “We advocate and teach caregivers to use time-ins instead of time-outs as a discipline practice with vulnerable children,” says Casey Call, assistant director of the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at TCU.
Unlike a time-out, which traditionally involves sending a child to his room or some other solitary place, a “time-in” involves having a child sit quietly in the same room with a parent. Call says time-ins are an inclusive practice that communicates to the child that “I’m here to help you calm down and we can work this out.” Time-outs, meanwhile, “exclude the child and can convey the message, ‘Figure this out on your own’ or ‘Calm yourself down.’”
After their adoption application was rejected, Unruh and her husband contacted several other adoption agencies. Over and over again, she says, they were directed to explore TBRI and time-ins, and they were discouraged from using time-outs. But there’s little evidence that these strategies are superior.
“We’re currently doing research on whether time-ins work, but to my knowledge there’s virtually no evidence on whether time-ins are effective,” says George Holden, chair of the Department of Psychology at Southern Methodist University. The research to date doesn’t support advice to abandon time-outs. “I think that’s going overboard,” he says. “There’s certainly a fair amount of research literature that shows time-outs can be effective in changing problem behavior.” He also says that time-outs—by allowing parent, as well as child, the chance to calm down—may help worked-up moms and dads avoid shouting, grabbing, or other aggressive forms of discipline.
Other psychologists echo his view. “I think that it is ill-advised for any professional to recommend an intervention that is not supported by evidence while simultaneously banning a parenting tool that is well-supported by research,” says Amy Drayton, an assistant professor and pediatric psychologist at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
Long-term effects of time-outs
For a study of nearly 1,400 families that appeared in the September 2019 issue of the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, Drayton and colleagues analyzed developmental data on kids beginning around age 3 and continuing up until age 11 or 12. They found that, among families who reported using time-out as a form of discipline, kids were not at increased risk for anxiety, depression, aggression, rule-breaking behaviors, or self-control problems compared to those who came from families that eschewed time-outs. Creativity scores were also the same regardless of whether a family employed time-outs.
“No matter how we sliced or diced or weighted or controlled the data, we found no evidence that using time-outs was associated with bad outcomes,” says Rachel Knight, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and one of the coauthors on the study.
While there’s a lot of research showing that time-outs can correct problem behaviors, this new study is one of the first to examine its long-term developmental effects. And unlike a lot of the existing research, this new study did not narrowly define what does and does not constitute a time-out; instead it relied on parent’s answers to questions related to their use of time-outs. “We know that when parents report using time-out, their definition of it varies a lot,” Drayton says. For example, a time-out for one family might involve sending a child to his room for 20 minutes, while for another it might involve asking a child to sit in a corner for three minutes. “We wanted to capture that wide range of possibilities.”
This is significant because some critics of time-outs, including Siegel, have argued that the research backing their safety and effectiveness is based on carefully controlled, psychologist-led interventions that don’t resemble the way time-outs are used in the real world. Drayton says her and her colleagues’ findings contradict this argument. While she says that some time-out practices are more effective than others when it comes to correcting a child’s misbehavior, her group’s study did not find that certain time-out strategies are harmful.
“The optimal way to give a time-out is to provide one warning, meaning if the child doesn’t cooperate within five seconds, they’ll go into time-out,” she says. “If kids are used to repeated warnings—the classic nagging until the parent loses it and orders the kid into time-out—it’s not going to be as effective.”
She says it’s also important that a time-out space—whether it’s a bedroom, a chair, or a staircase—is a “pretty boring” location without toys, media, or other forms of entertainment or distraction. (If a child doesn’t mind being in the time-out space, it’s not going to be effective.) Short time-outs—just a few minutes—seem to be just as effective as longer ones. “Give the child enough time to calm down and become quiet,” she advises. Once that happens, “it’s better if the adult decides when the time-out is over, rather than the child.” Also, when the time-out ends, it’s helpful if the parent follows through with the request that led to the time-out in the first place. “So if your child got angry because you told them to pick up their toys, you need to tell them again to pick up after the time-out,” she says.
Finally, it’s important for parents to be consistent about what will or won’t land a child in time-out. It’s also crucial that parents provide a generally loving, warm environment and reward good behavior with hugs, smiles, and verbal acknowledgment, she says.
“I would say parenting is the hardest job on Earth, and you need all the effective tools in your toolbelt,” she says. New and better discipline strategies may one day supplant time-outs. But, according to the latest research, time-outs are safe and often helpful at correcting problem behaviors.