Parents should be open to using a range of tactics for managing their preschoolers’ behavior problems — including “time-outs,” a set of new studies suggests.
When it comes to disciplining young children, there are two broad camps. Some popular advice books and websites emphasize “positive parenting,” where time-outs and other punishments are discouraged.
But if parents were to read a child psychology textbook, they’d find that time-outs are considered an effective tactic, said Robert Larzelere, a professor of human development and family science at Oklahoma State University.
That’s because time-outs have shown their value in studies of children diagnosed with behavioral disorders.
Things have been murkier, however, when it comes to “typical kids,” Larzelere explained.
But on Thursday, he and other researchers speaking at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting in Toronto offered evidence in support of time-outs — and a range of other parenting tactics.
Research presented at meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The gist of all the studies is that while whining and pouting can be managed with little fuss — or just ignored — more serious behavior issues, such as aggression towards other kids and hitting, should have consequences.
That does not mean parents should yell or spank, Larzelere stressed. It means judicious use of a time-out, or taking away a privilege or toy.
For their study, Larzelere and his colleagues conducted a series of interviews with 102 mothers whose children ranged in age from 17 months to almost 3 years at the outset. Overall, the researchers found that different tactics seemed to work for different behavior issues. And immediate solutions often differed from long-term ones.
When youngsters were “defiant” or hitting, moms often got immediate results when they used time-out or took something away from the child. Those moves were not effective, though, when children were simply whining or trying to get their way, the researchers found.
For those milder issues, “reasoning” seemed to do the trick in the short term, the study found. And how do you reason with a toddler? By keeping it simple, according to Larzelere.
One example he gave: “If you don’t share your toys with your sister, she won’t want to play with you.”
And in the long run, reasoning did seem to help wean youngsters off of more troublesome behavior, such as defiance and aggression. It didn’t work immediately, like time-outs did; but over the next 16 months, mothers who regularly reasoned with their child saw improvements in their behavior.
The key, Larzelere said, seemed to be “moderate” use of punishments like time-outs.
Other research presented at the meeting emphasized the importance of being consistent. Time-outs don’t work if parents brandish them randomly, wrote researcher Ennio Cipani, a professor at National University in La Jolla, Calif.
Instead, parents should decide what types of behavior will warrant a time-out — hitting, for example — and then be consistent with it.
When a child does cross the line, Larzelere said, parents can “give a warning.” If that doesn’t work, it’s time for time-out.
Clear, judicious use of time-out does work, agreed Kirsten Cullen Sharma, a neuropsychologist at the NYU Langone Child Study Center, in New York City.
Sharma, who was not involved in any of the studies, said that parents can feel free to ignore behavior problems that are simply annoying — like whining. But “oppositional behavior,” she said, is often persistent, and that warrants a response.
“Time-outs can be very effective for those children,” Sharma said.
Of course, she added, every child is different. “So matching the best intervention for any one child is very individual,” Sharma said.
But parents should not be made to feel like time-out is unreasonable, according to Sharma. “Some people disagree with time-out,” she said. “But sometimes parents need to take control. And they should know that it’s OK for their child to feel upset.”
Larzelere added that, “Parents need to have a full range of non-abusive tactics they can use for different behavior problems. Sometimes, they need to use ‘consequences.'”
But along with responding to behavior problems, he said, parents should also be sure to recognize and praise their preschooler for their positive behavior.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has advice on disciplining your child.