Time for a Time-Out

Tania Johnson | September 11, 2018

It’s the most used form of Discipline by Parents, yet its effectiveness is highly questionable…

“If you don’t stop, I’m putting you in a time-out.”

“Go and sit on the step for 5 minutes”

“Time for the thinking chair”

Sound familiar? Time-Outs were originally devised by Charles Fester in the 1950’s. Time-outs were considered a new way for parents to handle unruly behaviour, without resorting to spanking or verbal shaming. On the surface, time-outs seem great. Time-outs provide a space for all involved to calm down and gives children the time to think about their choices. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, research indicates that time-outs work in getting a child to behave in the short-term, but it doesn’t change behaviour long term. One study indicated that toddlers who were disciplined with constant time-outs actually misbehaved worse than those who were not disciplined with time-outs. Researchers hypothesize that this may be due to a perceived love withdrawal. As an adult, think of how you would react if your partner sent you to another room every time you were experiencing turbulent emotions. It doesn’t feel very safe, does it?

The root of the word discipline is “disciple”. Discipline means to teach, not to punish.

Ask any child and they will tell you that a time-out is punitive. Time-outs send children the message of “you were already overwhelmed by your emotions and now I’m going to make you even more overwhelmed by punishing you and insisting that you handle these emotions by yourself.” Children’s prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is responsible for problem solving and logical reasoning, usually only comes “online” between the ages of 5 and 7 and can occur even later for some children. Getting children to sit in a corner and think through their actions is ineffective. A time-out does not teach children emotional regulation or problem solving, and it creates a fracture in the relationship between a child and a parent.  Neuroscience now shows us that the physical structure of our brain is shaped by repeated experiences and when children are constantly isolated, it sends a message of rejection and disconnection. Children have a strong instinctual need to be close to caregivers when they are overwhelmed, and when they are isolated, this need goes unmet.

So, what do we do as parents and caregivers when children experience BIG feelings? Time-in’s allow for the creation of a safe container that send the message of “I will be your safe anchor through the challenging moments”. In a time-in, parents will sit with a child until they are calm in a quiet space. While children are dysregulated, it’s very difficult for them to process new learning. We want to wait until they are no longer in “fight or flight” before we begin to teach. Daniel Siegel coins this strategy “connect, then redirect.” Time-in’s nurture a deep bond between parent and child and allow for a child to begin to understand his or her emotions in a safe, supported space. As a therapist, I have worked with children that sometimes need a little space before connection. If your child needs this, then give him or her the space, but always come in afterwards as the safe container. A time-in does not mean that we do not set warm, consistent limits with our children, it means that as parents we calmly guide our children and lovingly reinforce the limits.

Your child looks to you as their guide in the world, teach them how to respond during moments of conflict …or as Knost said, “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.”

Tania Johnson, M.C., R.Psychologist., RPT
Co-Founder: Institute of Child Psychology

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