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HomeParentingThe Trouble With Time Out

The Trouble With Time Out


Article by Justin Coulson.
See his Happy families blog here or follow Justin’s twitter.

Overheard at a mother’s group earlier this week:

“I keep putting my four year-old son in time out, but it doesn’t seem to work. Nothing changes!”

One of the most popular “discipline” (that is, teaching) methods parents employ is the “time-out”. This typically consists of responding to a child’s challenging behaviour with the direction that he or she should sit somewhere boring and free of distractions for a set amount of time to “think” about what was wrong with said behaviour. After that period of time, the child will supposedly be remorseful and will also have learned his or her lesson. But does it really “discipline” (teach)?

Because most of us, if not all, have actually used this technique in various ways, I thought I’d make some points concerning the usefulness of it for “teaching” our children the best way to act.

Time out is really a politically correct euphemism for something I’m more inclined to call forcible isolation.

In real terms, time out involves a person of higher power using that power to hand down a sentence of solitary confinement to an essentially powerless child. Time-out is love withdrawal. Can you see your child sitting in the bedroom (or on the “naughty mat”) thinking “Gee mum, I see that I behaved foolishly and appreciate your wisdom in placing me here to reflect on my actions. I won’t behave in such a disappointing fashion again.”

It’s not likely. Instead she is likely to sit and stew. “I hate this. I hate my parents. They don’t understand. It’s not fair.” And if another sibling was involved they may also be thinking, “Just wait until mum’s not looking! I’m going to make my brother pay for this!”

Here’s a snapshot of what researchers have discovered about children who experience love withdrawal via the experience of time-out:
• Children become distressed when their parents threaten to leave them, particularly when the threat is associated with a child’s challenging behaviour
• Children will become highly compliant with a parent’s requests at the threat of love withdrawal.
• Time-out may be worse than other punishments despite there being no physical threat (or even any material threat). Thus, time-out is more devastating emotionally than other parental power assertions because time-out poses the ultimate threat of abandonment or separation. The parent may know when it will end but the very young child is totally dependent.
• The child who is repeatedly given time-out is far more likely to experience anxiety about love from parents. Time-out leaves kids in greater emotional distress for longer periods than does smacking!
• Kids who experience love withdrawal through the use of time-out and/or threats of abandonment (even for short periods) also typically have lower self-esteem, poorer emotional health, and are prone to increased challenging behaviour.
Of course a multitude of parenting experts (including many with PhD’s in the parenting arena) claim that time-out is the most effective way to teach our kids. But does it really teach? And if so, what does it teach?

Time-out is a power-based discipline. The power we have as parents is used to make a child suffer to change behaviour. So time-out certainly teaches that the big person is always right, and even if the big person isn’t right, he or she can make the smaller person do unpleasant things. Power is powerful.

Time-out teaches kids that their emotions and behaviours aren’t acceptable. Sometimes this may be true as it pertains to behaviour, but emotions are real and need to be respected. They also need to be regulated! Forced time-out is not an effective way to help a child regulate his or her emotion.

Time-out creates anxiety, so therefore teaches children that a parent’s love is conditional. Of course this is bound to have bad outcomes for the relationship between parent and child, and also for the feelings of worth the child experiences personally.

Time-out has some merit when used in one of the two following ways:

First, by giving myself time-out when I become frustrated I am better able to control my own responses to my children’s challenging behaviour. They also get the message that I’m upset when I remove myself and often remedy their behaviour without my intervention.

Second, when we give our children the option to go someplace of their choosing so they can work through their emotions we respect their autonomy. The time-out is chosen, rather than being a banishment.

So what do we do instead of using time-out?

Research has shown, again and again, that love-based discipline using reason, empathy, induction, and education, has far more positive effects on changing behaviour in the long-term (though not always in the short-term). Rather than creating a viscious circle where our withdrawal creates emotional distress which then prolongs our withdrawal, which then escalates our child’s emotional state there are other ways.

 Cuddling a child who is distressed will typically calm him or her quickly. Children cannot be “taught” (truly disciplined) when their emotional levels are high. But when calm, they soon become rational – and teachable.

 When a child refuses cuddles we can offer options, but never make threats. As the child sees that we will try to help rather than hurt, emotions can be regulated faster, and soothing occurs.

 If more than one child is involved in a challenging situation, it is often best to go straight to the “victim” and offer soothing and “emotional first-aid”. This will help the aggressor to see that challenging behaviour will not get him lots of attention. It also teaches empathy and kindness. Once the child who is the injured party is treated, then attention can be turned to the offender. Using perspective taking and induction, the child can be taught what is appropriate behaviour.

The move from a power-based disciplinary focus to one of love is a challenge. But our efforts will be worth it – in the long run. The only thing that should be made to sit on the naughty mat is time-out.

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