Please Tell Me Timeouts Don’t Work So I Can Stop Feeling Like Such A Failure

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shutterstock_100406365__1367082638_142.196.167.223You know that part of Supernanny when she swoops in and carries a toddler, mid-tantrum, to a corner or a stair or somewhere and tells them to “stay?” And they scream for a while but they actually stay there? And they cry a little but then they are all apologetic and cute when their parent comes to pick them up when “timeout” is over? They use special effects or CGI or something for that, right?

I have a toddler. He’s two-and-a-half. I have been trying this “timeout” thing for about a year. It doesn’t freaking work – not for any extended period of time anyway. I’m doing everything they say you should; I remove him from his environment, I put him in his crib or some other solitary place, I wait for the tantrum to end, and I retrieve him. He’s totally unaffected by this form of punishment. What the hell?

Melinda Wenner Moyer of Slate questioned her use of timeouts due to certain studies saying that they may not be the best way to discipline a child:

So there I was last week, perusing a preschool parent handbook, when I stumbled across a curious anti-timeout policy. “Time-out is not an effective form of discipline,” the packet explained. “This focuses on the negative and alienates the child.”

I felt an immediate pang of guilt.

I feel her pain. It seems like there is always some new advice, telling us why the advice we followed last month is actually totally wrong and we’ve probably irreparably damaged our children.

This led her to a very thoughtful analysis of several studies on both negative and positive discipline tactics. The result? Timeouts work if you do them right. Damn.

Overall, how well do timeouts work compared to other disciplinary tactics? In a systematic review of 41 studies published in 2012, psychologist Daniela Owen at the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy and her colleagues at Stony Brook University evaluated how well various types of nonphysical interventions improved kids’ subsequent behavior. This included forms of “positive” discipline like praise, encouragement, and hugs, as well as “negative” feedback like timeouts, ignoring, reprimands, and stern looks. They found that timeouts and other negative responses were associated with increased compliance in every study they reviewed, far more so than the “positive” disciplinary tactics.

The trick is, you have to make sure you are providing a nurturing, fun, caring environment for your child so that when they are taken away from that environment it’s actually a punishment. And you don’t have to actually remove your child from a setting for a timeout to be effective. You just have to withhold certain things, like attention and eye-contact as long as the bad behavior persists. It’s interesting that most of these studies turn very introspective, very quick. Maybe my toddler isn’t the one doing something wrong – maybe I am.

(photo: Jenn Huls/