Why Timeout Doesn't Work

By Gary E. Dudley, Ph.D.

For my entire career, I have been involved in working with oppositional and acting out children. One of the things I need to know early on is what types of approaches parents have tried prior to their presenting for treatment. Invariably I hear such things as "we've tried talking to him, we've taken privileges away, we've put him in timeout, we've spanked him, nothing works."

In fact, I point out, it's true: "nothing works." What I learned in talking to parents is that there is a nearly universal tendency to think that some strategy applied a couple of times is going to somehow "work" to undo firmly ingrained behavior and magically replace it with some new and more desirable behavior. This seems to hold for people in all walks of life from the cabdriver, to the teacher, to the CEO. The point that I want to make is that developing new, and adaptive and socially appropriate behaviors in children is primarily a teaching task. I believe that teaching best occurs in the context of a close emotional relationship and that this should be the primary commitment of parents as they strive to prepare their children to become responsible adults.

Training strategies that are largely punitive often do little to further the objective of training socially appropriate behavior, increasing self-control, and developing a capacity for tolerating increasing amounts of frustration without developing disorganized, oppositional, aggressive, and otherwise annoying behavior. Besides, taking things away usually turns out to be incremental, placing additional burdens on the parents who have to then remember what privileges they have taken away and supervise the child closely so that he doesn't avail himself of those privileges when the parent is not monitoring. All too often, the so-called "punishment" goes away, the child resumes his well-established maladaptive behavior, and parent and child observe correctly, "taking things away doesn't work." Spanking is even less instructive. If it is effective, it is usually because it arouses a level of fear in the child, but the effect is almost always short-lived and does not develop new and desirable behaviors.

So, what do we mean when we say something "doesn't work." We mean that it is our belief that we applied a certain technique or strategy and that strategy was not successful in eliminating unwanted behavior and creating new and desirable behavior. But, what do we mean when we say "timeout." What most parents mean is that they sit the child on the chair for a time, tell the child to stand in the corner, or put the child in his room for a period of time. These approaches generally involve the child's further noncompliance, getting up out of the chair, coming out of his room, and more often resembles a game of "cat and mouse" than it does any kind of instructional procedure.

In order to be an effective teaching tool, it is my belief that timeout is most useful when implemented in the following general manner. First, the child is confined to his room. This means that he is unable to get out. If he tries the door, the parent holds the door. In my work, since the parent is already consulting with a professional, I recommend that if the child continues to try the door, parents turn the privacy lock around so that they now lock the door from the hallway. Invariably, this is followed by a tantrum. Some parents make the mistake of trying to intervene in this tantrum. I think it's important to remember that the tantrum is a secondary problem. As soon as you attempt to address that, your teaching objective with the first behavior is lost. Most tantrums in children under the age of 10 last between 10 and 25 minutes. It involves screaming, hitting the wall, throwing things, and kicking the door. I remind parents that if shoes are removed for timeout, children don't kick the door so hard in their stocking feet. In severe cases, where children are destructive, it is sometimes necessary to remove everything from the room except for a mattress. I remind parents that state law requires only that they provide shelter, food, and access to education. Everything else in the child's world is optional. The child remains in his room until he is able to quiet himself, that is, reorganize his behavior. Parents note how long the tantrum lasted and then enter the room.

Upon entering the room, we encounter the opportunity for teaching. If the child resumes his tantrum upon seeing the parent, the parent immediately leaves and waits for the next interlude. When the child is able to remain quiet, I suggest that the parent sit on the floor and engage the child in a conversation that includes the following.

Ask the child why he was placed in his room. If he tells you the right answer, we can proceed. If he doesn't, you tell him the answer. And the answer always is "you made me unhappy, and frustrated, and angry when you. (State of the precise behavior that the child exhibited that you want him to stop doing). Now, ask the child to repeat that. If he refuses, then say "I can see that you are still too upset to talk about this, we'll try again later." Then, leave the room saying, "Please knock on the door for me when you are ready to talk." When the knock comes, return to the room and repeat the process from the point that you had reached. When he repeats the offending behavior, say "That's right and that made me unhappy. Every time you do that I will stop you and bring you here." Then ask "And what could you do instead that would not make me unhappy?" If the child gives an acceptable answer, we can move on. If he does not, give him a carefully thought out, detailed explanation of a suitable and desirable behavior for the current situation. Remember, your description must be sufficient so that the child can form a picture of the behavior in his mind. If you say "don't hit your brother," the child sees an image of hitting his brother. The human brain cannot form an image of "not something." This is the tricky part and you'll have to think this through carefully. In this example, I say "you must keep your hands to yourself." I can then demonstrate this and they have the image. Then say, "Do you think you'll be able to do that now?" If he says yes, timeout is over and we have had a constructive and informative conversation.

For repeat infractions, we have instant replay. I suggest that if we encounter the same infraction three times in the course of a day, then, the child's day is over. Tell him that you will see him tomorrow and he is confined to his room until the next day. Bathroom breaks on the hour, meals by delivery (and not a gourmet undertaking, peanut butter sandwich and water is fine).