The concept of timeout was developed by a psychologist named Arthur Staats in the 1960s. It was created as an alternative to spanking and other forms of physical punishment, which were very popular at the time. The idea was that children would be briefly removed from a rewarding or stimulating environment when they showed a particular challenging behavior, like aggression.
Timeout is short for a timeout from positive reinforcement. It is based on the behavioral principle that when you take away positive reinforcement (translation: anything rewarding in the child’s environment such as toys, parents’ and siblings’ attention, or a fun activity), a behavior will occur less frequently. Therefore, this principle can only be applied when the parent provides a positive environment at other times (attention, positive interactions, enriching activities, etc.). This behavioral principle works for adults as well. For example, imagine your phone died when you were waiting at the DMV — it would be boring but tolerable and you would likely be more motivated to charge your phone before the next DMV appointment. Timeout is not meant to cause suffering but just to be very boring.
Research in the 1970s and 1980s found that timeout was very effective at reducing problematic behavior. In the 1990s and 2000s, timeout was included in many parenting intervention programs (translation: programs designed to improve parenting which would thus improve parent-child relationship and the child’s behavior). As study after study consistently supported the use of timeout, it began to be recommended by nearly all pediatricians and mental health professionals.
It is unclear exactly when the opposition to timeout began but it may have originated in 2014, when authors Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson wrote an article for Time magazine called “Timeouts Are Hurting Your Child.” In this article, Siegel, a psychiatrist, and Bryson, a licensed clinical social worker, argued that children experience timeouts as rejection. They asserted that misbehavior in children is often a “cry for help calming down” and a “bid for connection.” They also argued that timeouts make children angrier and more dysregulated, which makes it harder for them to reflect on their behavior. Instead, they suggest that parents use “time-in” which involves “sitting with the child and talking or comforting [them].”
Siegel and Bryson used a brain imaging study to back up these claims. They wrote, “In a brain scan, relational pain — that caused by isolation during punishment — can look the same as physical abuse.” However, the study they are referring to only included adults, and the adults in this study did not experience isolation during punishment but rather they were left out of a virtual ball-throwing game. The researchers found that social exclusion during this video game was associated with activation of the anterior cingulate cortex (a brain region that has been found in previous research to be linked to physical pain, but also many, many other functions such as problem-solving and processing of all emotions). While these findings are interesting, it is hard to understand how this study might be applied to timeout and they definitely cannot be used to conclude that isolation during punishment causes physical pain for children.
Siegel and Bryson later clarified that they were only referring to timeouts which were conducted in harsh or punitive ways. They wrote in a follow-up piece that they actually support the use of timeout when it is used “infrequently, calmly, and with lots of support and connection and positive support.” They explained that “the ‘appropriate’ use of timeouts calls for brief, infrequent, previously explained breaks from an interaction used as part of a thought-out parenting strategy that is followed by positive feedback and connection with a parent.” They added that “This seems not only reasonable, but it is an overall approach supported by the research as helpful for many children.”
Yet, despite their clarification, the movement against timeout continued and a research study in 2014 found that 30% of websites on timeout inaccurately claimed the practice was either potentially harmful or ineffective. The researchers also found inconsistent or minimal information on research-backed timeout parameters.
At the same time, timeout continues to be recommended by most psychologists and pediatricians, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
So what does the research actually find on timeout? Is timeout an effective discipline strategy or could it be harmful to children?
Does timeout actually improve behavior?
Decades of high-quality research finds that timeout is effective at addressing challenging behavior in children ages 3 to 7. Timeout is included in nearly every research-backed parenting program, including Triple P, Parent Child Interaction Therapy, The Incredible Years, Helping the Noncompliant Child, and Parent Management Training.
Many experimental studies have found that timeout decreases sibling fighting, reduces noncompliance and oppositionality (translation: not listening when your parents ask you to do something), and decreases the frequency of aggression and destruction of property among children with ADHD. More importantly, randomized controlled trials (the gold standard research design) find that timeout is very effective at increasing children’s compliance to demands (translation: listening to what you ask them to do) and reducing fighting and behavior problems like aggression and destruction of property. These randomized controlled trials need to be given significant weight, as they are the highest level of scientific evidence. They go beyond simply showing that two things are correlated and allow us to conclude that parenting programs that include timeout actually cause these positive behavior changes.
Taking a break from an emotionally charged situation is an important skill to learn to manage emotions as an adult. A seminal research study in adults found that sitting quietly reduces anger to a greater extent than expressing it. This is similar to findings in adult relationship and marriage research that shows that when conflict reaches a certain level, more processing or engaging can be counterproductive; instead, evidence-based marriage interventions (such as The Gottman method) recommend that each adult take a 20-minute break away from the situation (an adult timeout, if you will). Research finds that this practice helps adults to stay calm and be less aggressive.
Does timeout cause harm in any way?
However, many parents are not worried about only whether timeout improves behavior but also whether it causes emotional harm to their children and how it might impact the parent-child relationship. A 2020 study addressed this very question by examining the impact of timeout on children’s long-term social and emotional development. The researchers found in this study that when parents used timeout, their children were not more likely to show signs of anxiety or depression, aggression, rule-breaking behavior or difficulties with self-control. Timeout was also not associated with any impact on creativity or differences in how the children interacted with the parents or the parent-child relationship.
Another study including families from many different countries found that the frequency of timeout was associated with increases in mother-reported levels of child anxiety but not child-reported anxiety and was not linked to any differences in either mother-reported or child-reported aggression. This finding is hard to interpret but suggests that mothers may be worried about their child’s anxiety if they use timeout but the children are not reporting any changes in their anxiety themselves.
It is important to note that in both of these studies, the researchers did not train parents in how to implement timeout or measure whether timeout was used “appropriately.” Therefore, this research suggests that timeout even as implemented by most parents (which is not the way recommended by research) is not associated with negative outcomes. It is also striking that very different results were found in both studies for harsh discipline tactics, such as spanking/physical punishment, yelling and expressing disappointment, which were linked to increased aggression in children.
Now, you might be thinking: “These studies are all correlational…how do we know that timeout doesn’t actually cause any emotional harms?” Fortunately, we also have research suggesting that parenting programs that include timeout do not cause harm and often cause positive changes in children’s mental health. Randomized controlled trials of parenting programs that include timeout found that these programs were effective in not only reducing behavioral problems but also improving children’s mental health. Specifically, children who complete these programs show fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression and are less likely to show emotional problems. A recent nonrandomized controlled trial also found that a parenting program that included timeout improved children’s mental health.
In addition, research that looks at the different components of these programs found that teaching parents timeout in particular was associated with more positive child and parent outcomes. In other words, programs that included timeout were found to be more effective in improving parent-child interactions than programs that did not. Research also finds that parents show less harsh punishments after learning timeout through one of these programs.
However, it is very important to mention that timeout has rarely been studied outside of the context of these positive parenting programs. Therefore, we do not know if timeout will have these positive outcomes when it is not being used with other positive parenting strategies. This is consistent with the very definition of an evidence-based timeout; all evidence-based programs specify that timeout should only be used when paired with positive parenting strategies.
So should I use timeout?
As with all parenting decisions, you can use the research as a guide but ultimately you as a parent are the only one who knows what is best for your child and your family. Timeout is an effective tool that parents may or may not choose to use. This decision should not be based on fear or misinformation, but rather guided by your intuition, values, and knowledge of your specific child and family. If it does not feel right to you as a parent to use timeout, then it is important to know that the research does not indicate that you must use timeout in order to be an effective parent.
Even in light of the research finding no harms of timeout, it is important to remember the limitations of timeout. Timeout does not teach your child what to do instead of the challenging behavior and does not teach them about their emotions. Therefore, timeout should only be used in the context of other positive parenting skills, such as emotional coaching (talking to our children about their emotions and the emotions of others), teaching coping strategies and other appropriate skills, and focusing on a positive relationship between parent and child. We also need more research on timeout, including further research examining the long-term impacts of timeout.
If you are using these positive parenting skills and you would like to also use timeout occasionally, you can add timeout to your parenting toolkit without any guilt. Research consistently finds that harsh discipline tactics, such as yelling or physical punishment, are associated with increased mental health symptoms in children. If timeout gives you and your child a chance to calm down before you resort to these strategies, it might make sense. You can also use timeout and still use gentle parenting strategies that are backed by research such as emotional validation, empathy and positive attention. Despite how it is depicted on social media, parenting is not black-and-white and it is really up to you to determine what is right for your child and your family.
Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, a mother of three and the founder of Parenting Translator, a nonprofit newsletter that turns scientific research into information that is accurate, relevant and useful for parents.