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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Time-Outs, Time-Ins: Good, Bad, and Badly Misunderstood

A brief article published a couple of years ago in Time magazine is still getting a lot of attention. This piece, written by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, was entitled “ ‘Time-Outs’ Are Hurting Your Child” ( ). Siegel and Bryson began with the statement that painful experiences can “change the structure of the brain”  (though they did not follow up by saying what behavioral or mood changes might result, if any). They noted that emotional pain activates the same brain areas as physical pain, commented that isolation can be emotionally painful, and concluded that children who were temporarily isolated in “time-out” may be damaged by the experience. They advised that “time-out” should give way to “time-in” to give increased experience of warm affection.

Members of the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Division 53 of the American Psychological Association, have been quite concerned about the inaccuracies in these statements. In a press release headed “Outrageous claims regarding the appropriateness of Time Out have no basis in science”, members of the division pointed out the highly selective cherry-picking of neurological evidence that Siegel and Bryson made use of, and noted that there were decades of research supporting the safety and efficacy of “time out”, and little or none supporting “time in”.

The efforts of Siegel and Bryson to argue that “time outs” or harmful were characterized by a common theme among pitchers of woo--  that when the brain is “changed” by events, that the outcome is of necessity a bad one. This ignores the fact that the brain is constantly changing in structure and function because of maturational factors, and is simultaneously being changed as memories of experiences of all kinds are formed. The outcomes of these changes are generally positive, so it is absurd to present “changes in the brain” as evidence of harm. The first problem is to show that an experience (“time out”, for instance) is regularly followed by undesirable behavioral or attitudinal changes; if this had been accomplished, which it has not, the next step would be to trace the brain events that cause the connection between the experience and the bad outcome.

Like all other organisms, children change their behavior in response to reinforcing events that follow behaviors. If something nice happens after you do something, you become more likely to repeat that action. Unfortunately, sometimes behaviors that other people do not want or like get reinforced by accident. For example, most children will cut back on a behavior that gets them scolded and yelled at, but a child who gets very little attention may find that being focused on by an angry adult has reinforcing power. It’s not the yelling itself, but the attention, that reinforces the behavior. Similarly, a preschool child who acts up may find that although the teacher does not reinforce the behavior, all the other kids are excited and interested and attentive--  that reinforces the behavior and makes it more likely to be repeated.  

If children are “being bad” because an undesirable behavior has been reinforced in the past, the unwanted behavior can be reduced by making sure that it does not get reinforced.  The purpose of “time out” is to prevent reinforcement by removing the child temporarily from a potentially reinforcing situation. If done consistently, this is an effective approach--- but ONLY if the unwanted behavior has reached its present frequency because it was reinforced in some way by the social environment.

If a behavior is self-reinforcing, like eating when hungry, scratching an itch, or masturbating, unless it has also been socially reinforced, “time-out” will not affect its frequency. Neither will “time-out” reduce seizures or periods of inattentiveness due to neurological disorders, or fearful behavior stemming from previous traumatic experiences, or attention-getting behavior resulting from the absence of normal adult attention. The reason to choose a method other than “time-out” is that a specific behavior may not have developed as a result of reinforcement, and it will not diminish as a result of non-reinforcement. Under those circumstances, “time-in” and increased interaction with an adult may be helpful to a child who needs social support in order to do his or her best.

“Time-out” is not always the best choice--  but this is not because it “changes the brain” in some mysterious but threatening way.

P.S. Then there’s my two-year-old granddaughter, who when sent to “time-out” trots off looking very pleased with herself as she does just what her older brother is sent to do! Is this experiencing actually reinforcing for her? Maybe, but after all she wasn’t so very naughty to begin with…

1 comment:

  1. Ah, she wants to be with her brother as social support and reinforcement.

    it's the non-social "reinforcement" which gets people.

    "Support" - how helpful can it be?

    It may not have developed - it will not diminish.