The Trouble with Time-Out

The Trouble with Time-OutSo there you are one afternoon, at the end of your rope with an out-of-control three-year-old. You know you won’t spank him, and you have become mindful about avoiding shame-based measures, so what’s left? Is “Time Out” the answer? At risk of bringing on the wrath of parents everywhere, my answer is no.

Time-outs were conceived as a more humane alternative to spanking, but the problem is, they land a blow to the brain and psyche rather than to the bottom. Right at the moment when the child is overwhelmed by a flood of emotions he cannot manage, and he most needs the regulating presence — that is,close physical presence — of his attachment figure, he’s banished to his room or his “Naughty Chair” or his “Thinking Rug” or his [fill in the blank with any of a list of prettied-up names people have devised for this particular form of exile].

What a tantruming child (or, more helpful to think of him instead as a struggling child) most needs is time-in — that is, in secure, soothing arms, in the steadying, regulating sphere of your engaged presence. We have to outgrow this tired notion that a 3- or 4-year-old is manipulating us, and to hold him is a reward. NO!! At that age, children truly don’t possess the neural equipment to construct such Machiavellian manipulations.

In fact, their tender neural equipment is in a period of sensitive development at this point and time-out is counter-productive in that regard: it deprives a child of regulation just when she needs it most! Isolation from you throws her system into protection mode, and erodes her trust in and relationship with her parent.

After all the fussing is over and order is restored, the memory trace etched in her social brain is, When I’m having trouble, I’m on my own. This is not the foundation we’re striving to offer Generation Peace. We wish for them the suite of healthy social and relational capacities of resilience — which includes being comfortable reaching out for help when needed. Let’s not extinguish that skill with our well-meaning attempts at positive discipline!

If Not Time-Out, then WHAT?

<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /> Consider using a time-out in the way it was originally conceived in sports: for a whole team, not just one struggling player (well, except for ice hockey, but you get the point). It’s about, “Let’s all take a pause to regroup, rethink our approach, and return refreshed.” Used in this “us-as-a-team” manner — “Let us take a time out” — it is a demonstration that while you’re not happy with the way things are going or the choices he has just made, you are on your child’s side in this challenging moment — and always. You can find your own name and style for this regrouping process; in psychologist Lawrence Cohen’s family, it’s “A Meeting on the Couch”:

Discipline is a chance to improve your connection with your children instead of forming another wall that separates you. The best way to make discipline more connecting is to think We have a problem instead of My kid is misbehaving. Sometimes just changing the scene and making reconnection a top priority can create a dramatic difference, and the tension is gone as soon as you get to the couch, so you might end up just goofing around and being silly together.

Indeed. In his wonderful book Playful Parenting, Cohen offers a roadmap for parents wanting to enrich their family life with more play — and that is a worthy goal for all of us. Parenting for peace is all about providing the most fertile ground possible for the blossoming of our children’s social and cognitive intelligence. Among the animal kingdom — in which we are supposedly the crowning achievement -—it is a fact that the more intelligent the animal, the more it continues to play throughout adulthood.

Time-Out for Play? YES!

But somewhere along the way to adulthood the vast majority of us forgot how to play. Life became serious business —and parenting along with it. And especially for those of us who had less security in our childhood, who may have never really felt safe to enter that imaginary frolic zone, when invited by our children to play, we’re like deer in the headlights. Our own uneasiness seeds uneasiness in our children and this itself can evoke challenging behavior.

The sad irony in this negative feedback loop is that these are the parents whose buttons are particularly sensitive, their own childhood “stuff” so ready, like a dry tinder box, to be set off by the sparks of a child’s unwanted behaviors. The beauty of Cohen’s approach is that it offers a playful way out of that contracting spiral that is helpful and healing to everyone: “As long as we are grown up enough to handle things like keeping them safe and getting dinner on the table, our children want and need us to loosen up.”

If I’d had the gift of this perspective the one time I spanked my son, I might have used one of Cohen’s many playful ideas to free us both out of that tight spot — such as pretending to be angry:

Okay, so let’s play the game of “Mommy pretends to be really angry at Ian” [making an exaggerated lion face]: “I’m sooooooooo angry at Ian … I may have to steal his shoe!”

…at which point Ian would have felt drawn in by my silliness, rather than pushed away by my own lack of inner regulation and, of course, by my physically violent act. The fact is, parenting can actually be a whole lot more fun and light-hearted that we typically realize! We just need to get over our culturally imprinted worry that if we use humor to diffuse and redirect a disciplinary jam, we’re somehow failing our parental role by not taking it seriously enough … or rewarding/reinforcing “misbehavior” by not bringing the hammer down … or slipping down that slippery slope of being their friend rather than their parent.

Lead with a Light Touch & Warm Heart

border bs:0 bc:#000000 ps:0 pc:#eeeeee es:0 ec:#000000 ck:500d02a4f1f1d7497340cc586896bf11Credible leaders don’t lose their composure, it’s as simple as that. When it’s necessary to reprimand your child, strive to do it without a raised voice or the look of disgust or cruelty in your eyes. Aside from the corrosive effects of shaming, the child will lose trust in you over time, and will look towards others as models. “He doesn’t respect me” will be your (accurate) complaint later, especially at an age when he most needs to be able to learn from his parents, such as during his teen years.

It is always more effective to focus on what the child may do, rather than issuing a “You may not…” prohibition. This approach also reduces the risk of putting the child into a disconnected neurobiological protection state. In fact, educator Barbara Patterson suggests that the very word “May” can have seemingly magical properties, as in, “You may put the forks on the table now”: it presents no question for the child to either answer or ignore, and it implies the notion of privilege to be doing what the adult is suggesting.

And indeed, a child enjoying a secure, connected relationship with her parents does find it a privilege and a joy to behave in harmony with their wishes. In this way, robust attachment is like the power steering of parenting! In his important book on key dynamics in attachment, Hold On To Your Child, Gordon Neufeld cautions that this “power assisted” aspect of the parent-child relationship requires “careful nurturance and trust”:

It is a violation of the relationship not to believe in the child’s desire [to behave well] when it actually exists, for example to accuse the child of harboring ill intentions when we disapprove of her behavior. Such accusations can easily trigger defenses in the child, harm the relationship, and make her feel like being bad. …It’s a vicious circle. External motivators for behavior such as reward and punishments may destroy the precious internal motivation to be good, making leverage by such artificial means necessary by default. As an investment in easy parenting, trusting in a child’s desire to be good for us is one of the best.

Keeping this sacred trust in mind, and basic principles regarding the significance of your example, and the importance of relationship and play; of clear messages and limited choices; of healthy rhythms; remember that the single most pivotal ingredient in harmonious, joyful parenting is you — your confidence, conviction, and trust in yourself and in your child.


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9 thoughts on “The Trouble with Time-Out”

  1. I find time-outs as a useful tool since I was abused as a child and I need my space from my kids when they are throwing tantrums like that. It’s not a perfect solution but it’s what works best for our family.

  2. I wouldn’t stop using time-outs completely in our family, because just like Lazurii, I was abused as a child and also need space from my kids. I have seen my learned behavior of hitting and insulting affect my child much more negatively than a four minute time out. One thing I admit I could do is re-evaluate the reasons and the frequency with which I put my daughter in time out.

  3. Great article. I always tell moms that what children think during their timeout is “I hate you mommy. I hate you mommy.” Timeouts breed resentment. I understand that moms and dads sometimes need to take themselves into a timeout. It is much better to express it that way. “I need to calm down. I will be back in a minute.”

  4. Time outs in our family are “please sit down somewhere and calm down until we can talk” and only gets used when they are hysterical. Getting close and talking only heightens the drama and makes it take longer at the point, even talking calmly and lovingly. I think it really depends how you use it and what your kids’ personalities are.

  5. Parental time-outs can be useful for the parent that feels out of control or doesn’t know how to handle a situation. The parent should walk away and take the time out rather than punish the child by sending them to take the time out. When the parent is in the control or has figured out how to handle the situation they can return and deal with it. It is possible to parent full time and never have to use time outs or punishments (and enjoy it).

  6. Once again, FIB, you really know exactly what to say to make other mothers feel awful.
    If I take a parental time-out, ti’s the exact same as having my children sit in a time-out: they’re separated from me. That’s what my kids don’t like the time-out, because they aren’t with me. Having me take a time out and having kids screaming outside my bedroom door doesn’t help with the anxiety or rage.
    But thanks for playing.

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