Time-out is still the most often recommended form of discipline. Paediatricians, parenting experts and child development experts continue to recommend it above all other disciplinary techniques. And it is popular with parents.
In a world where spanking is out and yelling is following closely behind, parents are struggling to find effective discipline strategies. Many parents turn to time-out. In a recent study of 401 preschool and school-aged children, 76.8% of parents reported using time-out with their child.
And to be fair, research shows that it can “work”. 70% of the parents in one study believed that time-out helped manage their child’s behaviour. But just because it is can work, doesn’t mean it’s good for our kids. We might ask, “works to do what?”
It’s time to change the time-out perspective and consider the cost on our kids.
Time-out causes ‘relational pain’
When we put our kids into time-out and walk away from them, they feel rejected and isolated. Research suggests that this causes ‘relational pain’. Relational pain travels the same neural pathways in our brains as actual physical pain. In fact, brain imaging studies show that time-out causes the same neural responses in our kids as smacking (and there are a slew of problems associated with smacking).
Time-out may be more devastating emotionally than other punishments despite there being no physical threat because time-out poses the ultimate threat of abandonment. Think of it from the child’s point of view. The parent may know when the time-out will end but a very young child does not.
Time-out communicates that our love is conditional
Putting our kids into time-out communicates to them that we are only interested in being with them when they are being good. In other words, time-out teaches children that a parent's love is conditional.
Conditional love creates deep feelings of anxiety. And a child who is repeatedly given time-out is far more likely to experience anxiety about love from parents. Kids become frightened that their parent will not love them if they behave in a way that is ‘bad’. This drives a wedge into the parent/child relationship at the worst possible time – right when they need you most.
We don’t need research to tell us that, particularly in times of distress, we all need to be near people who care for us and comfort us. Time-out undermines that basic human need.
Time-out inhibits emotional regulation
Time-out is often sold as being an opportunity for a child to ‘think about what he’s done’, or ‘to calm himself down’. Of course, emotions need to be regulated and, as parents, we need to help our children learn to do just that. But forced time-out is not an effective way to help a child learn to regulate his or her emotions. In fact, it’s counter-productive. Emotions become more disregulated during a time out. A child feels fearful or worthless… or angry and misunderstood.
This means that time-out makes children more selfish, rather than less. Rarely do children sit and think about how they could be better behaved next time. No, they sit and stew about the unfairness of the situation and how they hate their mum because she doesn’t understand.
And by isolating them from us, we have lost the opportunity to teach our kids how to do better. Instead, we have forced them into a situation that keeps them focused only on themselves and how they can avoid consequences next time.
Time-out leads to more misbehaviour
When kids are overtaxed emotionally, they will sometimes misbehave. This is especially true while they are still learning to regulate their own emotions. These big feelings need a way to get out and often misbehaviour is a cry for help calming down and for some connection.
Research shows the isolation of time-out actually increases subsequent misbehaviour. This is true even when the parent spends time talking to the child after the time-out is up. Putting them in time-out deprives them of an opportunity to build skills that other types of discipline could focus on – skills that we should be teaching them. When our kids have these big feelings, they need us more, not less.
Time-out effects wellbeing
Our feelings of wellbeing are highly dependent on our relationships with our loved ones. It’s no surprise then that kids who experience love withdrawal through the use of time-out also typically have lower self-esteem, poorer emotional health and are more prone to challenging behaviour.
Time-out leaves kids in greater emotional distress for longer periods than smacking does.
So what do we do instead of using time-out?
We need to focus on giving our kids the opportunity to build insight, empathy and problem-solving skills. As parents it is our job to set clear limits, but we should do this by working with our kids, not by forcing them to work it out alone.
We need to give our kids the chance to learn to make good decisions and empower them to make better choices in the future by employing reason, empathy, persuasion, lots of teaching and questioning. This takes time and energy. But research shows that while the short-term payoff can be less obvious, the long-term outcomes are far better.
So let’s change the time-out perspective – just because it is effective, doesn’t mean it is right.