Why Taking Away Privileges, and Time-Out, Don’t Work!!

Why Time Out Doesn't Work- Parenting Tips

Written by Dr. John Carosso

Taking away video-games (or TV, or a toy…) doesn’t work? Say it ain’t so!!

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the tried-and-true discipline method of taking away video-games, a favorite toy, or whatever else is largely ineffective and, in fact, counter-productive. How can that be, you ask, when taking away a favorite activity is probably the most commonly-used behavior management strategy parents have in their arsenal? Well, here’s the truth the matter.

Taking away privileges often makes the situation worse!!

Here is the scenario, a child does not do their chores or back-talks; parent yells and then takes away the video games “for a week!!!” Child yells back, negotiates, and parent may or may not follow-through. If the parent follows through, child pesters incessantly to get the video-games back, which causes more frustration for parent. If parent removes the games at all, it’s definitely not for an entire week. The next time the child misbehaves (an hour later or the next day…) the parent does not have video-games to use as a punishment (they’re already taken away).

So, in that scenario, the threat of taking away video games (or whatever else) results in worse behavior due to the child’s emotion stirred-up at losing the favored item, the child’s subsequent pestering to get the coveted item returned, and the parent not having the games to use later as a punishment. Does that sound effective?

What about other punishments (such as time-out)?

If taking away privileges is ‘number one’ of all punishments, then time-out is a very close second. However, how does time-out work for your child? You put your child on the steps or in a corner; it takes 15 minutes of yelling, cajoling, and emotion to get them in time-out in the first place, they fuss once there (yell-out “when is it going to be over”, get teased by their siblings, seek attention from you…), they won’t stay there, and finally maybe they “complete” time-out after maybe a few minutes of being quiet, if you’re lucky.

Is this a common problem?

I’ve heard 10,000 times (maybe more) “I’ve tried that, it doesn’t work” when suggesting these discipline strategies to parents. I don’t blame them; they’re right; these strategies, as they are typically implemented, don’t work. This is why counseling with a professional who can offer solid suggestions is so important given that implementing punishments, the right way, is not easy.

Let’s start first with the most effective ‘punishment’

I’ll start with best ‘punishment’ that a parent has in his or her arsenal.  Just to clarify, I think rewards, kudos, and the softer-and-closer approach are far more effective than any punishment, but at some point a parent has to set limits, and nothing beats ‘time-out’ if used properly.

How to make time-out work

The key to time-out is that it’s used without any pestering (just say “1”, “2”, “3 – go to your room”) and absolutely no emotion. There is no arguing, fussing, or carrying-on no matter the child’s reaction; rely on the consequence (time-out), not on your words or your emotion.

Step-by-step

-The child is directed to time-out (and is walked there, if necessary, in a calm manner)
-Time-out is in their room, not in a corner or on the steps. This way, the child is out of sight and can’t seek attention or disrupt the family. He does not return to the family until calm and ready to comply, and you decide when that occurs.
-The child is informed, ahead of time, that the door will remain open if they remain calm. If they yell, the door will be closed. If the child will not stay in their room, well, there are some good options for that too; just email me (drcarosso@aol.com) for specifics and I’ll walk you through what to do. In the meantime, one option if the child refuses to go to his room is to offer a choice: “one quick, 10-minute time-out, or no going-out to play the rest of the day…”  Another option is a reverse time-out (you leave). There’s one other even better-option, but you’ll have to email me to get it.

Why time-out in a child’s room is most effective

The nice thing about time-out in the room is that it immediately ends the emotion, gives a chance for everyone to calm away from each other, and when it’s over, it’s over and you move on!!! The child can do whatever he or she wants in the room except electronics. You can take away toys and books to make it more aversive if necessary.

Okay, so now I understand how to use time-out, what about loss of privilege?

Loss of privilege can be effective, but there are specific ways to make it work. First, differentiate from immediate loss of privilege that is used until a task is accomplished (the “premack principle”, or “when/then”). In this manner, ‘when’ your child has cleaned his room or done his homework, he can ‘then’ go out to play. The ‘not being able to go out to play’ is the loss of privilege, and is withheld until the unfavored task (chore) is done.

The other form of loss of privilege can be used over a 24 hour period. This way, each day specific tasks need to be accomplished (homework, chores, respectful toward parent…); if the task(s) are accomplished by a specific time each day (say, 7:00PM), then the next day the child earns the privilege (video games, going out to play…); if not, then the next day the privilege is not earned. Each day is a new day and dependent on what happened the day before. In this scenario, it’s vital to make sure the tasks are achievable and realistic based on ability level and your child’s history; otherwise, you’re dooming your child to failure.

There ya go

I’ve provided a basic overview of why loss of privilege and time-out often are woefully ineffective, and how to improve your chances of positive outcomes. This post was a bit longer than usual but there is still so much more to consider so feel free to ask any questions at DrCarosso@aol.com. Now, go use time-out and loss of privilege with confidence and success!!

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Dr. John Carosso

Dr. Carosso has more than 30 years of experience as a licensed Child Clinical Psychologist and Certified School Psychologist working in private, inpatient, outpatient, residential, school, and home settings. He is Clinical Director of Community Psychiatric Centers (cpcwecare.com), a licensed Behavioral Health Outpatient Clinic, and operates both the Autism Center of Pittsburgh (autismcenterofpittsburgh.com) and the Dyslexia Diagnostic and Treatment Center (dyslexiatreaters.com).