The Trouble With Time Outs

Dear Readers,
I have stepped away from my blog for a time. Colleague Megan Stonelake is filling in with insightful posts about parenting. Enjoy.

Given the popularity of the time out on parenting websites, it may come as a surprise to many parents that time outs aren’t the most effective form of discipline. Parents may be in complete agreement about the damage that can be done by spanking, but the same parents might be surprised to learn that time outs are also largely ineffective and potentially harmful.

Why Time Outs Don’t Work
In No-Drama Discipline, Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson explain that very few children actually sit in time out and think about what they could have done differently. More frequently, children sit in time out and fume about the injustice of being in time out. They feel angry at their parents and can become even more upset. Therefore, the intended outcome is rarely achieved.
When children are in a state of high emotional reactivity, their brains are stressed. Stressed brains operate from a “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, meaning the brain is focused solely on survival and is not equipped to act rationally or solve problems. Correction and discipline are ineffective and counterproductive in such a state. We must first offer empathic coaching to assist our children in identifying and regulating their emotions before we expect them to process what has taken place and what they could have done differently.

As with other forms of punishment, time outs reduce the opportunity for meaningful discussion and connection. Time outs send our children the message that their behavior makes them unacceptable, rather than it being a result of overstimulation, lack of skill, or developmentally appropriate frustration. “Putting them in time-out deprives them of a chance to practice being active, empathic decision makers who are empowered to figure things out” (No-Drama Discipline). Similarly, parenting expert Dr. Laura Markham states, “When you send him off to his room by himself, he’ll calm down eventually — but he’s no closer to learning to manage those emotions next time.” If our intention is to give our children the opportunity to reflect and brainstorm solutions, they would be better served by a collaborative approach which take places with a loving parent, “…the biggest reason we question the value of time-outs has to do with a child’s profound need for connection. Often, misbehavior is a result of a child getting overtaxed emotionally…It’s during these times that a child most needs our comfort and calm presence (No-Drama Discipline).

Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson also point out that time outs are often commanded from a place of anger and frustration rather than thoughtful intention. In this case, it isn’t so much about giving the child space to reflect as it is a way to isolate a child for a negative behavior. This punitive approach teaches our children that we only love them when we find their actions acceptable. As soon as they behave in a way we don’t like, they are separated from us until they are once again deemed “good.” Alfie Kohn keenly identifies this as a “time out from love” (Unconditional Parenting).

Time Outs Aren’t Developmentally Appropriate
Parent educator Sarah Ockwell-Smith explains that time outs with toddlers are an exercise in futility as it assumes young children have the neurobiology of adults, “Under the age of three the neocortex (the frontal section) of the brain is exceptionally immature, the neural connections are not yet fully formed and as such we may consider it grossly underdeveloped….The frontal cortex of the brain is the segment that is responsible for impulse control, emotional self regulation and critical, analytical and hypothetical thought.” In other words, small children are entirely incapable of accomplishing what time outs are intended to give the space to provide: the opportunity to reflect, problem solve, and regulate their own emotions. Those are skills which come with time, experience, and empathic coaching. Expecting toddlers to possess them is unrealistic. Ockwell-Smith explains that time outs may change behaviors, but it’s only because children learn that sharing their emotions is not safe and will be met with punishment.

Our most powerful tool in parenting is our connection with our children. Therefore, our discipline is only as effective as our relationship. By sending our children away, we weaken that connection, however slightly. In doing so, we also set ourselves up for a power struggle. Many parents who have tried time outs unsuccessfully explain that it was nearly impossible to keep their child in the time out. When this happens, it’s our will against theirs, and often physical intimidation is needed to make the child comply. Rather than choosing a collaborative method wherein we’re encouraging trust and mutual respect, we’re choosing to adopt a “parent vs. child” dynamic. Very little learning can take place in such an environment.

What If I need a Time Out?
Maybe your child doesn’t need time apart, but you do. If you know separating from your child and taking a few deep breaths is the only way to stay composed, take care of yourself before attempting to care for your dysregulated child. We’ve all had moments when we know we’re on the verge of yelling, and in such an instance taking your own time out is the better option. Consider explaining to your child, “I love you, but I’m feeling frustrated and need a few minutes to calm down so I can help you.” Then make sure your child is safe and go in your room to beat the tar out of some pillows or practice deep breathing. We’re in no position to calm a dysregulated child when we are operating from a state of dysregulation ourselves.

Time outs aren’t the most punitive form of punishment we can practice, but they also aren’t the most effective mode of discipline. When we see our relationship with our children as an opportunity for collaboration, we naturally gravitate towards interventions which provide them with support and gentle guidance rather than isolation and judgment.

Megan Stonelake is a therapist, blogger, mama, and parent coach. She’s passionate about baked goods and supporting families in raising resilient, compassionate kids. You can find her on Twitter (twitter.com/empathicparent), Facebook (facebook.com/EmpathicParentingCounseling) and on her blog: empathicparentingcounseling.com/blog

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    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
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