Most parents who use time-outs to discipline their kids don't do it in ways that can encourage better behavior, a recent U.S. study suggests.
More than three in four parents reported using time-out in response to misbehavior, the study found. But 85 percent of the parents using the technique made common mistakes that can render time-outs ineffective, including giving kids too many warnings, talking to kids or letting them play with toys during their punishment.
"The biggest mistake in my clinical experience is that parents do too much talking, and that was true in the study, too," said lead study author Andrew Riley of Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.
"If parents are talking to their kids during time-out, it's not boring enough and might not work very well," Riley added. "Explanations are fine, but should wait until the time-out is over."
Spanking and hitting children to discipline them has become much less common in recent decades as more parents choose non-physical approaches like time-outs instead. A recent U.S. study suggests that only around 21 percent of mothers think physical discipline is appropriate, and 81 percent endorse time-outs as an alternative.
Effective time-outs start right after the bad behavior occurs, lack elaborate warnings or explanations and involve withholding stimuli like attention from other people or access to books and toys, researchers note in Academic Pediatrics.
To see how well parents are putting their theories about non-physical discipline to work in day-to-day life, researchers analyzed survey data collected during well-child visits from 401 parents of kids aged 15 months to 10 years.
Overall, 74 percent of parents believed in disciplining kids by taking away a privilege, 64 percent supported scolding or reprimanding children and just 7 percent endorsed spanking, the study found.
One in four parents, however, believed in giving in to the child and 5 percent supported doing nothing at all in response to bad behavior.
To support good behavior, 83 percent of parents believed in praising and giving extra attention to children and 69 percent endorsed rewarding kids.
When parents used time-outs, most often it was in response to aggression or destructive behaviors.
About 70 percent of parents who used time-outs said it was effective.
Parents who found this method effective were more likely to give children just one warning before the punishment, provide a clear reason before time-out, set a clear duration for time-out and require the child to be calm to end the time-out.
Limitations of the study include its reliance on parents in one urban community to provide insight on time-outs, which may mean their responses aren't representative of how discipline works in families nationwide, the authors note.
Still, the findings highlight a lack of certainty many parents feel about the best way to discipline their children, said Heidi Feldman, a researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine in California who wasn't involved in the study.
"If parents are uncertain about whether to discipline, rather than delivering a clear statement, 'one more time and you will need to go to time out,' they bargain or warn repeatedly or offer justifications during the time out," Feldman said by email.
Another problem is parents often use time-out when they're angry, Feldman said.
"If they administer the time out in anger, they may yell and frighten the child," Feldman added. "If the child becomes upset, then the procedure loses its effectiveness."
Ideally, parents should model good behavior that shows kids the rules and values they should follow.
"Consistency of the message also helps," Feldman said.