Timeouts Revisited
from Pregnancy & Baby
by Elisa Medhus, MD

Defending pride
Some believe that banishing children to a separate area sends them the message that they are so terrible that they must be removed from present company.

Others think that it's a non-degrading, effective means of discipline and certainly preferable to yelling and hitting. Children should only be separated from a group if reasonable attempts to have them correct their own behavior within that group have failed. More important, if that separation must occur, timeout shouldn't be a place of exile for the "persona non gratis."

Instead, it should either be looked upon as a "regrouping station" or "thinking corner" where children have the opportunity to reflect on their misbehavior and ways to correct it, and correct their behavior or a logical consequence to protect the rest of the group from that misbehavior.

If we use timeouts as a punitive form of exile, the child is probably going to focus his attention on defending his pride, lashing out against us in a counterattack, or wallowing in self-deprecation or self-pity.

This means his attention is not focused on correcting his behavior and making amends. This exile form of timeout also becomes an external cue that provokes questions like, "What's my chance of getting into trouble?" And if that chance is all but remote, they'll look to other external cues like our mood, level of distraction, and facial expressions to answer another question: "Is this the time it matters to be good or not? So if, by some happy miracle, they do comply with the rules we establish, it'll more than likely be because they're afraid of our reaction rather than because it's the right thing for them to do.

In other words, the way we use our timeout strategy can mean the difference between raising a child who does the right thing only because he thinks he might get caught versus one that does the right thing for the right reasons, even when no one is looking. Let's take a look at both types -- harmful and constructive:

Self-directed timeouts
Putting the child in timeout should be done calmly and politely so they won't be tempted to focus on how mean and unfair we are. After a short time, we can try to help them examine the events that led to their timeout. Then, we can teach them how to find alternative solutions to the problem as well as ways to prevent it from happening again. Let's analyze one situation where a timeout could be used to promote this introspection:

Jimmy bites his best friend, Brandon, on the arm out of sheer frustration. The first thing we can do is acknowledge his feelings, "I realize that you were so frustrated with Brandon that you bit him."

Then we firmly state the rule that we expect him to follow, "Biting is not allowed, Jimmy." Next, we ask him to come up with an alternative solution. If he draws a blank, it's okay to help him out a little: "If you don't like something that Brandon is doing, then you can use your words to let him know how you feel." After that, we need to deliver a logical consequence: "Jimmy, I want you to sit here by me until you cool off. I'm worried that you might still be angry enough to make the same mistake."

Finally, we can have Jimmy makes amends: "Now, I want you to come up with something that you think would help take care of Brandon's feelings." If he refuses, he'll just have to sit out longer to ensure another fracas won't occur. Very likely, a series of interactions such as this one would suffice. Through this dialogue, Jimmy learns that his feelings are not only understood but that he is permitted to express them, as long as he does so without hurting anyone. He also learns how to use his reasoning skills to come up with alternative solutions and discovers that all of his actions have consequences. In the end, he's given the opportunity to right his wrong. Therefore, Jimmy is taught how to conduct himself with others without being separated from them for an extended period of time.

If this first approach fails because Jimmy is so hysterical or enraged that he can't even listen to what we have to say, we can say something like, "Jimmy, you seem to be too mad to think, right now. I want you to sit by me on this bench and give yourself time to cool off. When you're not as mad as you are now, maybe you can give some thought to what just happened between you and Brandon and what you might plan to do about it."

If the situation is even beyond that, and we see the little veins sticking out in his neck, we can use the time-out as a "protective corral," by saying something like, "Jimmy, I need you to sit here by me so you won't be tempted to hurt Brandon again. You're so angry, I'm afraid you might do something you'll feel sorry about later. When I feel comfortable that you won't hurt one of your friends, we'll talk about what happened, and you can play with them again."

If you need to modify the timeout for those children who refuse to stay put, you can gently but firmly restrain them in your arms and say something like, "I have to stop you until you learn to stop yourself." These last two approaches entail using timeout as a logical consequence. Regardless of which of these two we choose, the first approach can be attempted again, when Jimmy's calm and coherent.

Externally directed time-out
If we had chosen an "externally directed" timeout by saying something like, "Jimmy! You march right over to that bench and sit down for 10 minutes. I don't want to hear another word from you!"

Jimmy probably would have used that time thinking, "Mommy isn't being fair! She likes Brandon better. She didn't hear him calling me all of those names. I hate Brandon! I'm never playing with him again!" This response certainly isn't what we want, because here, Jimmy has evaluated his predicament as an unjust punishment, turning us -- the judge, jury, and executioner -- into an external influence that incites reactions from him that will dictate his next course of behavior, as if we're pulling the strings on a puppet.

Although timeouts do work for some situations and some parents, it shouldn't be used as a substitute for parental modeling, words of guidance, or logical consequences. It should be an opportunity for children to quietly contemplate their misbehavior and find workable solutions or a logical consequence that separates them from the rest of the group (parents included) so they can't inflict others with their poor choices. That said, depending on how we set construct them, timeouts can be valuable learning experiences rather than a humiliating exiles -- breeding reflection, not resentment.

About the author: Elisa Medhus, MD, is a mother of five and a family physician with 13 years experience dealing with the issues that today's families face. She is also the author of Raising Children Who Think for Themselves, Raising Everyday Heroes, and Hearing is Believing, to be published in April 2004. Although she retired from medicine to homeschool and be a full time mother to her children, she still has a large following of former patients who frequently call or drop by her home for medical advice, comfort or help. Her work has been featured on national broadcast and print outlets including Good Morning America, The Houston Chronicle, a Seattle morning show, The Houston Post. She resides in Houston, Texas with her husband, her five children, their three dogs, and other transients from the plant and animal worlds.