Of all the parenting techniques and interventions touted by the "experts" in the past few years, few have met with such mixed reviews as the one known as time out. The reason for this is that the term is used in the literature to describe two very different interventions that are used very differently and designed to accomplish very different outcomes.
The initial concept called time out was designed for use with toddlers and young children whose behavior was clearly unacceptable (yelling, hitting, etc). The idea was to tell the child that what he had done was unacceptable, and to have him sit in an area, alone. This was to be seen as punishment for the negative behavior. The amount of time that the child had to sit alone was announced and he was expected to "serve the sentence" in full. Sometimes children were actually held down in their seats until they literally served their time.
Does This Kind Of Time Out Work?
Practitioners who advised it soon discovered one of the pitfalls of this method. Parents would often insist on an amount of time that was developmentally not feasible. This would, in turn cause more outbursts, create a full-blown power struggle, and defeat the initial intent of the entire exercise. Very often, exasperated parents would put the child in time out without identifying the offending behavior.
The original paradigm of the above method was based on behavioral psychology, which is based on the idea that a person will not engage in behaviors that are always followed by adverse and onerous consequences. According to this thinking, though, the child would have to memorize all situations that were not accepted by the parents.
The best way to assist a child with his venture into time out is to model it.
Nonetheless, if the goal was to simply follow the parents' orders, the method worked rather well. Except that the child never learned to assess a situation (for danger or appropriateness, for example), never learned to problem-solve, and never learned to draw conclusions based on similarities of situations.
Using The Right Kind Of Time Out
Except for cases of dangerous behavior by a very young child, more is to be gained, in my opinion, by using a different kind of time out procedure.
In this interpretation, time out literally means to take time away from a situation which is causing too much stress or anxiety and which is resulting in a loss of control. It serves not only to prevent unwanted behavior, but also helps a person calm down and think about the situation in a more rational, goal-oriented way. It is wonderful training for children as they grow older and are interacting more and more with peers and adults outside the family.
During the time out break, the youngster doesn't just sit there; she is asked to think of how to better attain her goal or to reassess that goal. Problem solving and remembering past experiences and consequences are needed here. In fact, rather than have the parent be the warden who oversees the time out sentence in stony silence, in this model, the parent is the coach who helps with the thinking and solution process.
Parents Also Need Time Outs
The best way to assist a child with his venture into time out is to model it. That is, when a parent or other adult is feeling overly stressed, he can tell the child, "This is getting to me; I need some time out," then proceed to another room for a while. When returning, if appropriate, the adult can review his thinking while taking a break, thus demonstrating how he averted a blow-up and solved a problematic situation.
One of the seldom-mentioned benefits of the second time out method is that it presents pressure as a universal phenomenon, which the child can master. It prevents the child from thinking of himself as bad in comparison with all the good, disappointed grownups in his life. All people feel pressure, but there are ways of dealing with it.
In my experience in private practice, as well as in my own child-rearing, I have found that the second time out method has a wonderful double benefit: It not only is more successful in teaching children to behave; it does the same for their parents!