Time-in Before Time-out: Time Out from Positive Reinforcement?

By Lisa Kosan

Time-out was originally called “time out from positive reinforcement,” explains Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., a professor of pediatrics at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. If there’s nothing positive or nurturing for the child to draw on the majority of the time, he says, then there’s no lesson learned or benefit gained from a time-out. Your child won’t mind being separated from the family.

If you happen to live in the real world and administer an occasional time-out, don’t launch into a dissertation. Just say, “time-out, hitting” or “time-out, interrupting,” Christophersen advises. And, if the time-out is for yelling at a sibling or playmate, don’t yell at your child for yelling at someone else. It’s like telling your child not to smoke as you light a cigarette.

A lot of irritating behavior – sibling rivalry and bickering, for example – is the manifestation of the lack of certain skills: the ability to share, postpone gratification, wait rather than interrupt. “If you work on teaching those skills, you don’t have to put as much emphasis on punishment,” Christophersen says.

Sometimes, a parent’s crankiness or impatience can actually be the catalyst for a child’s negative actions, says Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Yale Child Study Center and an expert on children’s behavior problems. Kazdin’s research shows that, because the parent-child relationship is very reciprocal, when you ease the stress of a parent who usually doles out a healthy share of punishment, you see a huge difference in how they interact with their children.

“Parents under stress tend to respond more negatively and more reactively to minor misbehaviors,” Kazdin explains. “That begins a cycle that is unhealthy in misbehaving children and that in deviant children can really make things go awry.”

To ease the stress – on themselves and ultimately their children – parents should give themselves a break by scheduling nights out with a friend or spending more time with their spouse.

The Time-In Series:

Part 1 – 'Time In" Before 'Time Out'

Part 2Time Out from Positive Reinforcement?

Part 3Less Talking = More Hands-on Learning

Part 4 - Tools for Kids and Parents to Use in Interpersonal Situations

Part 5 - Help Children Blow Away Anger

Part 6 - Gentle Touching Sends a Loving Message