Disciplining Kids in a Modern Society

In the winter months (and during quarantine), kids can get even more stir-crazy than usual (being stuck indoors doesn’t help). Even if you aren’t feeding them sugar, they might decide to act out or bounce off the walls, and if you have a toddler running around, we know how easy it is to get overwhelmed; so what is the answer?

Black Hills professional Dr. Mark Perrenoud is a licensed psychologist at Psychological Associates of the Black Hills and sees mostly children and teens. Sitting down with him, he answers a few questions about disciplining kids in a modern society and whether time-outs really work. 

A time-out is defined as a mild punishment that allows a child to calm down and reevaluate or let their emotions settle at the same time as deterring bad behavior. Dr. Perrenoud explains a time-out as “removing a child from positive reinforcement.”

One of the biggest challenges that parents have to accept with time-outs is that there is no right or wrong, no one way specifically on how to do it. Time-outs vary from family to family and even from sibling to sibling. What might work for your oldest child isn’t always going to work with your other children.

Children start expressing themselves and diving into their individuality as young as six months old. From screaming about a wet diaper to needing food, acting out and throwing tantrums are the first ways kids know how to communicate and express their needs. Dr. Perrenoud explains that, as kids start to crawl and walk, the tantrums simply get more difficult to deal with. That’s where time-outs come into play. 

Make a Time-Out Effective

Parents must have an established, positive relationship with their kids. “Time-in is an equally important concept for parents; the idea behind a time-out is to revoke a privilege or something that your kids enjoy,” Perrenoud explains. If the privilege involves time spent with a parent, but you don’t have a positive relationship with your kids, “it would be less effective to take [away] time spent with you.” Time-in means you’re an active parent and involved in your child’s life, making time to be with and play with them and being a good influence. Once you’ve established that relationship, the child will miss that time with you during time-outs more and your punishment will become more effective. 

The Logistics

Kids pick up on things fairly quickly, so they really do understand what a time-out means, but it doesn’t hurt to discuss it ahead of time or even practice it and give your child a scenario that they can relate to. For example, if your child has been biting lately, sit them down and explain what a time-out is, and tell them that if you bite mommy, daddy, or your siblings again, you will be placed in time-out. Be open with your kids and discuss your expectations and what is or is not allowed frequently. 

As a general rule of thumb, you should send your kids to time-out for one minute for every year of age they are, Perrenoud suggests. Every child is going to be different, so it’s key to figure out what works best for you, and what works best for your goal. You might find that even if your child is eight or nine years old, the message you wanted has gone through clearly if they only sit in time-out for two or three minutes. “There are some indications that just a couple of minutes is sufficient,” Perrenoud shares. 

Another key part of time-out to remember is consistency. Don’t fall-through with your warnings. You shouldn’t have to give your kids three, four, or even five warnings before carrying through with the punishment. According to Perrenoud, you can even get away without any warnings, but some professionals suggest at least one before sending a child to time-out. 

What if You’re in Public?

Taking your kids to the grocery store can be a nightmare. From wanting sweet treats to wandering away from the cart, you’re going to experience a tantrum in public at some point during their childhood, but how do you deal with it? If you’re used to giving time-outs, keep up with them. 

There’s no set rule on where to serve a time-out. While most commonly it is in the child’s bedroom, some parents have found that their kids will play around instead of reflect on what they’ve done, so they started designating a spot or a specific chair to time-outs. Even if you’re in public, you can still serve a time-out. If you’re at the grocery store, have them sit on a nearby bench or drag them over to the restroom area and let them sit there patiently for a minute until they cool down. With some kids, you don’t even have to go any place specific. If you tell them they are in time-out right then and there, maybe that just means to be silent and obedient for a couple of minutes. 

On the opposite side of things, we’ve all seen where the child just wants nothing to do with anything or anyone during a trip to the store. At that point, it may be best to be patient and just take your kid(s) out to the car until they are ready to go inside again. 

Pro-tip: It’s one thing if you shop for 15 minutes, but after an hour, that can start to get too long for kids. Their attention starts to wane and they get restless. Try splitting your shopping into two times a week rather than one long shopping trip, or pre-ordering your groceries online for easy pick up.

Time-Outs Aren’t Working? 

If time-out doesn’t seem to be working, it is still best to avoid physical punishment. Physical punishment isn’t only ineffective, it can also be harmful and reinforce bad behavior. Dr. Perrenoud lays out a scenario for parents: “If you punish your son or daughter for hitting their sibling or a guest by spanking them or slapping their hands, you are sending a mixed signal to your kids.” Physical punishment also instills more fear, and can quickly escalate to abuse if the parent loses control over their anger or emotions. 

If a time-out isn’t cutting it, revoke other privileges. What does your child hold dear? Is it screen time on the iPad or TV? Going to friends’ houses as they get older? Time-out is just one way for parents to discipline kids.

“The best piece of advice I have for parents is to ‘catch them being good,’” Dr. Perrenoud shares. “Sometimes parenting can focus too much on the punishment, but it is important to remember that as parents, we need to encourage and praise our kids.”

Get a Second Opinion
Q & A with Dr. Trisha Miller

Dr. Trisha Miller is another licensed clinical psychologist at Psychological Associates of the Black Hills and currently has three kids in different developmental stages at ages 13, nine, and six. 

Q: Why do young kids act out? 

A: Young kids, or any kids (or even adults) act out to meet a perceived need or their body may be approaching its physical limit of sleep, hydration, or food. They may feel powerlessness, so they act in a way to try to take control in the situation, or they may be tired. When people are tired, especially little people, they become less self-aware, more impulsive, and the brain becomes more emotionally reactive than it would be when it’s “fully charged” so to speak.  

Q: What age do kids typically start to misbehave most?  

A: Negative behaviors usually become most noticeable between one to three years old, as that is when children are becoming mobile and more physical, so they can throw, hit, run away, bite others, etc. in a way they couldn’t do before.

Q: What are the pros/cons of time-outs?

A: Time-outs can be a very effective discipline strategy when used correctly and consistently — there is abundant research documenting the positive outcomes of timeout. High-quality research has found time-out to time and time again lead to reductions in child aggressive behaviors, to increase child compliance, and to increase the display of emotional regulation skills.  

Q: What are the best ways to discipline kids in a modern society? Why? 

A: Keeping in mind that discipline means to teach, rather than to control, it is important to see discipline not as a single tool but as a toolbox that is: 1) used fairly, 2) applied appropriately for the child’s developmental level, 3) used consistently as situations present themselves, 4) implemented by an adult who is composed emotionally, 5) takes into account a child’s history of trauma, if that is the case, and 6) balanced with relationship-strengthening activities outside the moments of needed intervention. Many things may have changed in the environment children are being raised, but children now are no different than children from the past — they still crave positive relationships with the adults they come into contact with, they still need positive modeling to learn moral values and coping skills, they still like to have fun through games or being read to or with, and their hearts swell when being recognized for something they’ve done well.

Q: How do parents get their children to listen to them? 

A: All people respond best to people they have a strong, trusting relationship with! Building that relationship and then doing things to maintain those relationships are key, all in balance of a predictable set of expectations and consistent discipline toolbox.

Q: How do you force your child to participate in time-out if they resist? 

A: If you are having to force a kid into time-out, it might not be the best strategy to be choosing at that time, as it seems the child’s emotions must be addressed first. Recognize your child’s emotion (e.g., “you are so mad right now”), stay calm yourself and give them time to calm using gentle reassurance or by walking away (you know your child best), and then proceed to discuss the situation once the child is functioning in a more reasoning-based center of their brain. I’ve explained to parents before that trying to reason with a child who is intensely angry will work about as well as trying to reason with someone who is drunk.

Q: As a parent, what’s the best piece of advice for parents that you can give? 

A: You are your child’s biggest model for how to behave and how to cope with stress and emotions. First concentrating on getting yourself to a place of composure before acting on your child’s behavior or emotions puts you in a place to be a more effective parent.

Written by Sarah Richards