This is why time-outs may be doing more harm than good
Many parents think that time-out is an effective and gentle discipline method. But some experts beg to differ. Find out why time-outs don't work.
“I don’t WANT to put my toys back. Go ‘WAY, I don’t WANT you!”
Has your toddler or child spoken to you in a disrespectful manner? Or has he behaved in such an inappropriate manner that it makes you cringe just thinking about it? Back in the day, children would most likely get spanked or yelled at by their parents when they behaved like this.
However, child health experts across the world now agree that such extreme forms of discipline do more harm than good to a child.
With parents and educators becoming more concerned about the negative impact of corporal punishment and yelling on a child’s development, “time-out” has emerged as a seemingly more appropriate and popular alternative.
But are time-outs as effective as we think they are?
The origins of time-out
According to the book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (Kohn, 2005), time-out is actually an abbreviation for “time out from positive reinforcement.”
The term emerged around half a decade ago from the work of psychologists such as Burrhus Frederic Skinner as a way of training laboratory animals.
As Skinner and his colleagues tried to teach pigeons to peck at certain keys in response to flashing lights, they experimented with various rewards (e.g., food) and punishments (e.g., withholding food) to get the birds to “comply”.
Following the work of Skinner, the term was picked up by other researchers who soon started applying it to methods of discipline for children.
Kohn goes on to say that time-out was later recommended as a form of discipline for young children by professionals as it was a seemingly effective way of correcting children’s misbehavior.
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Using Time-out at home today
A time-out involves getting the misbehaving child to sit quietly on a chair (a minute per year of age) or asking the child to go to his room so he could think about what he did. Often, the child is asked to remain quiet for the duration of the time-out.
Following this, he is permitted to rejoin the rest of the family provided that he does not repeat the behaviour that got him the time-out in the first place.
In essence, time-out involves the withholding of attention until the child is ready to comply with expected behavioural norms.
Why time-outs don’t work
When talking about spanking or yelling at a young child to control undesirable behavior, you may think of time-out as a more gentle and calming alternative.
However, numerous experts in the area of child development research are starting to question the effectiveness of time-out.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Tina Bryson, PhD, are co-authors of the bestselling book The Whole-Brain Child.
In a recent article that appeared in Time Magazine, they identify several valid reasons why time-outs may actually be detrimental to children’s healthy development.
According to Siegel and Bryson:
- Relational pain that is caused by isolation during punishment — such as that which a child is subject to during a time-out — can look the same as physical pain on a brain scan.
- Studies in neuroplasticity (the adaptability of the brain) show that the physical structure of the brain is changed by repeated experiences of anything. This is also true for repeated time-outs, where the primary experience for a child is isolation.
- The ultimate lesson a child will eventually learn from time-outs is the feeling of rejection. This is because even when a time-out is done in a patient and gentle way, it teaches your little one that when he is emotionally distressed, he will have to deal with his feelings by himself.
- Children have a very strong need for connection, especially during times of anxiety or distress. Given this, when a child is sent to the “naughty corner” or “naughty chair” by himself, an important psychological need of the child to feel connected is neglected.
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Why time-outs don’t work — more compelling reasons
Other shortcomings of this method of discipline, as identified by Siegel and Bryson, include:
- The inability of time-out to address the goals of discipline, which are to change behaviour and build skills. Time-out makes children feel even angrier and more hurt than they are in the first place because they are isolated during times of distress.
- Depriving kids of the opportunity to build empathy and problem-solving skills. Usually, children think about how mean their parents are, rather than their misbehaviour.
- Teaching children that they should bottle up their feelings. Since there is an enforced silence during time-out, children learn to suppress feelings instead of expressing them.
Solter explains that children can experience the withholding of attention that accompanies a time-out as abandonment and punishment. This could damage the parent-child relationship and the child’s self-esteem.
Furthermore, she points out that the approach does not address the underlying causes of difficult behaviours in children.
What’s the alternative?
According to Siegel and Bryson, parents should aim to set clear limits when it comes to their kids’ behavior, while maintaining collaboration, conversation and respect.
They suggest that parents should consider “time-in” instead of “time-out” when a child’s behavior gets out of hand. What this entails is developing a connection with your child that is based on love and not anger and resentment.
You could do this by sitting with your little one and comforting him first to help him calm down. Then, still sitting with your child, you could talk to him calmly about his behavior.
Other professionals in the field of child development suggest pre-empting your child’s tantrum or undesirable behavior by warding it off when you notice things getting out of control. Distraction often works in such instances.
Parents, remember that the discipline methods you use on your child will contribute to the set of life skills he will develop through childhood and into adulthood.
Select a method of discipline that will empower your child to become an “active, empathetic decision maker” with the ability to skilfully navigate his way through the journey that is life.