Time-Out is Extinction, Not Punishment

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Time-out actually is short for Time-Out-From-Reinforcement.  It is an extinction procedure, not punishment.  The difference is both the operation and the result. 

There are two kinds of punishment:  positive and negative.  Positive punishment is administering a noxious stimulus.  For instance, a slap across the face is a noxious stimulus that is administered.  Negative punishment is the removal of a pleasant stimulus.  These days, negative punishment is taking away your child’s electronics.

However, punishment does not work to remove a behavior.  The behavior immediately decreases, only to return with time.  Reliant upon negative punishment, a parent has to continually take things away, be it fun activities or material goods.

When a child is “misbehaving” and the child is sent to the corner or a distant room, the adult is administering both positive and negative punishment. The likelihood is that whatever the child was doing was reinforcing to the child, so taking it away is negative punishment.  The corner or distant room is intended to be a noxious, undesirable stimulus, so it also is positive punishment.  However, Johnny returns unchanged. 

Time-out from reinforcement is different. There is only one operation and that is removing reinforcement for the undesired behavior.  With an extinction procedure, behavior temporarily increases before dropping off entirely, never to return.  The primary difficulty with extinction is ascertaining the source of reinforcement.

A typically used example of extinction is that of a malfunctioning vending machine.  Every day at lunch time you go to the same vending machine and every day the behavior sequence of putting money into the machine and pressing a button is reinforced by a snack in the open tray.  The day you put your money into the machine and press a button, but no snack appears in the open tray, you press the button multiple times or even pound the machine.  Your behavior initially escalates. Eventually, you walk away.  You will not return to that machine unless reinforcement again is offered.

Let’s say your child is having a temper tantrum.  You do not like the temper tantrum.  What makes your child’s temper tantrum enjoyable?  First of all, it is a release of feeling: It is relieving.  Second of all, it receives reinforcement.  Although your intention may be to punish, you are delivering reinforcement with your attention.  The most potent reinforcer for any child is parental attention.  It does not matter what form that attention takes; any attention is reinforcing.  What is a parent to do?

Ignoring the behavior is not a solution. Instead, the instructions in response to the temper tantrum are what matter.  Acknowledge your child’s feelings and direct your child to care for his/her feelings in private.  The response might be scripted as follows.  “I understand you are upset (Do not tell your child what s/he is feeling, lest you start an argument).  You need to have your feelings in private in your room.  Stay there at least X minutes (The rule of thumb is one minute per year of life up to the age of five years, whereupon it becomes two minutes).  Take as much time as you need.  If you want to talk about it afterward, I am here.”  Without an audience, the temper tantrum will stop.

The behavior may not stop immediately.  Your child may stomp to the room, slam the door to the room, yell provocative things from the room, or refuse to leave.  Remember that the object is to remove the reinforcement for the behavior.  You will not engage. It does not matter which one of you leaves the room.  Your child may commandeer the living room while you remove yourself to a different room.  However, do not do what one set of parents did by retreating to their bedroom, trapping themselves inside while their child stayed outside the door beating on the door for two hours.

What if you are out in public and not at home?  It is best when consequences are immediate rather than delayed.  Therefore, you do not want to use the threat, “Wait until we get home.”  Instead, find a place of relative privacy for your child, where you still can be protective of your child’s safety. Please note that this never is going to be convenient.  You will be standing in the cue at the cashier in the grocery store with a quart of ice cream in your shopping cart and you will have to abandon your cart and the last forty-five minutes you took to gather everything on your shopping list. Or, you will be late for an appointment and have to pull the car off the road.  This will be made even more inconvenient by the fact that it is raining, snowing, freezing cold, or boiling hot.  The instructions to take care of his feelings remain the same. 

It is important to note that the temper tantrum must be over before interacting.  A tale-tell sign is if, after a brief interlude of calm, your child loudly announces, “I hate you!” Your response is, “I see you have not completed releasing your feelings in private.  I will step away again to give you the time that you need.”

Older children have temper tantrums, too.  By the time your child is a teenager, you may couch your instructions in terms of your relationship. For instance, you might say something along the lines of “I am not responsible for what you are feeling and you need to take care of your feelings.  If you want to discuss what it is about, I can be available.”

The procedure of extinction may be applied to other examples as long as you have control over the reinforcing stimulus.  When the reinforcer is beyond your control, you will resort to instituting appropriate consequences that are closely linked to the behavior.


Lorraine M. Dorfman, PhD

Dr. Dorfman is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Pennsylvania.