Parents of Preschoolers: To Use Time Out or Not?

A question for parents of preschoolers everywhere: what do you think about time out?  Do you never use it and frown upon parents who do?  Or would you be lost if you couldn’t use that timeless threat (stop that right now or it is time out for you!)?    

I fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, I don’t have an issue with parents using time out, I sometimes use it myself.  But I do have concerns about how much it gets used.  I think time out is one of many ways to respond to difficult behaviour in kids and it is only helpful when it is used sparingly, and in the right context.

Time out is like a hammer – and when you want to stick a nail into wood, a hammer is perfect.  But when you want to fix a leaky tap, undo a screw or dig a hole, using a hammer is going to be useless at best and destructive at worst.  

The trouble with Time Out is that when we use it we are assuming that the only reason kids are doing the difficult thing is because they don’t have an reason or incentive to not do it.  We think, well if we give them a reason (ie, if you don’t cut that out you’re going to time out) to stop doing the annoying, difficult thing then hey presto, they’ll stop doing it.

The truth is that kids do difficult things for a whole lot of reasons – and not just because they don’t have an incentive to not to do them.  

For instance, sometimes kids do difficult things because of a lack of skills.  In this case, time out doesn’t help.  To think about this, let’s say your child is learning to catch a ball.  If they drop it – do you send them to time out?  Nope, you coach them through it (hey try putting your hands together and look at the ball) and try again.  Lots of difficult behaviour in kids occurs because of a lack of skills.  Kids are just not good a whole lot of things we ask of them – sharing, listening, paying attention, managing their feelings and switching their attention away from stuff they like to tasks that we’ve asked them to do – all of these things are tough to do.  They need coaching, training and help and time out doesn’t do any of this.

Kids also often do difficult things because of their distress.  Time out isn’t that helpful here either.  To think about this, let’s say your child is crying because they miss their grandpa who lives in another country.  Do you send them to time out?  No, you comfort them and try to help them feel better.  Ideally you try to teach them to help themselves feel better.  Lots of difficult behaviour in kids happens because they are distressed.  We don’t always recognise this because unfortunately when kids get worried, sad, frustrated and uncomfortable, they don’t calmly say “Mum, I feel a little distressed right now and would like to be reassured and comforted”.   Instead they yell, cry, hit, refuse to share, and don’t follow instructions.  But the distress is still real.  Sending them to time out at this point doesn’t lower their distress, nor does it teach them to do positive and helpful things when they are distressed.

Teaching skills to kids and helping them to soothe themselves is harder work than using time out.  But I suspect in the long run, it works a whole lot better in lots of circumstances.  So, yes, use the hammer if a hammer is needed.  But double check that a pair of pliers aren’t a whole lot more useful.  

How much do you use time out in your household?