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 use of time-outs as parents is not suitable for an adopted child, which the agency said was “isolating and not appropriate for an adopted child—or any child.” But is this true? Are time-outs really so bad?
Previous research has reached different conclusions for years. Some promote time-outs as an effective parenting strategy among children to deal with a defiant disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder – two of the most commonly diagnosed causes of disruptive behavior in kids. Whereas some claim that time-outs are dangerous to a child’s mental health, as they cut them off from contact with other people in times of high emotion, raising safety and efficacy issues.
However, none of those studies looked at the long-term effects of time-outs, so a team of researchers from the University of Michigan aimed to find out. The long-term study followed nearly 1,400 families over years.
So are time-outs harmful?
The researchers 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. In short, there was no evidence that time-outs lead to bad outcomes for children in the long run.
“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,” said Rachel Knight, who worked on the study.
What’s the best way to give a time-out?
Lead author Amy Drayton has some value in site on this issue: “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 repeating warnings—the classic nagging until the parent loses it and orders the kid into time-out—it’s not going to be as effective.”
Drayton also added the time-out location should be in a “pretty boring” location, with no form of entertainment or distraction. Short time-outs – just a few minutes – also seem to be the most impactful. “Give the child enough time to calm down and become quiet,” she advises. “It’s better if the adult decides when the time-out is over, rather than the child.”