“Just put him in time out”.
You’ve heard those words many times. I sure have. They’ve even come from my own mouth.
It’s become our go-to solution for kids’ behaviour challenges.
Once upon a time, spanking was the solution. Most parents didn’t see it as “abusive” or “traumatic” for the child, it was just a part of parenting.
Thankfully, spanking is no longer socially acceptable. But time-out still is.
Kids are usually sent to time out because they’ve expressed emotions in an inappropriate way (hitting, kicking, etc). Sometimes kids are sent to time out because they’ve made an error in judgement, like using mummy’s expensive new lipstick as wall paint. Even if the child wasn’t emotional at the time, the prospect of time out can ironically trigger a meltdown.
Time-out has been around for a while. It’s meant to give distressed children the opportunity to calm down, by removing them from the situation. It’s a highly resourceful way of dealing with strong emotions.
Provided that you know how to deal with strong emotions.
And most kids don’t.
Especially young kids.
Managing our emotions is a skill that’s partly learned, and partly developmental. Kind of like kicking a goal in football. As a foundation, you need the motor skills to be able to manoeuvre the ball, and then a bit of training, observation, and experience to get the ball into the goal.
It’s the same with emotional regulation.
Babies aren’t born knowing how to regulate themselves. In fact, it’s crucial that they express their emotions in the most attention-grabbing way they can, so that parents can quickly meet their needs.It’s only when they develop the cognitive maturity, and then observe, experience, and model the adults in their life, that they learn to effectively manage emotions.
A distressed child who is screaming, hitting, scratching, or “having a tantrum” is clearly not regulating emotions effectively. And persisting with time-out is simply forcing that child to regulate emotions that they’re not yet capable of managing.
Furthermore, it often isolates them in the process.
Some parents will remove their kids from the situation and then remain with them, providing love and support, during the tantrum. I think that’s fantastic, and I actively encourage that approach.
The problem I have is when kids receive little to no attention or communication while in time out.
It’s the method promoted by many, and made popular by Supernanny-like TV shows.
The theory is to “ignore” children while they are in time out. It’s straightforward behaviour conditioning. Reward the behaviour you want to see, and it will be reinforced. Punish the behaviour you don’t want to see, and it will be extinguished. The child in time-out is essentially “punished” by our withdrawal of attention.
The problem is, by withdrawing attention from a distressed child, we inadvertently trigger a greater, deeper fear.
The fear of rejection.
We all have this fear. It’s a highly adaptive fear stemming from our caveman days. Rejection from the tribe meant that we were alone and vulnerable – and probably wouldn’t survive for long.
In kids, however, this fear of rejection is exponentially stronger. That’s why children crave so much comfort and connection.
In the caveman days, the kids with the strongest connection to their caregivers received the most attention, which meant nurturance and protection from danger. In short – connection equalled survival. Kids were highly sensitive to rejection, because rejection led to abandonment, which led to pain, harm, and even death. We see this in the animal kingdom, when a mother ignores or actively rejects her young.
Although we’re in the modern era, our caveman instincts persist.
So when we put our children in time out and then withdraw our attention, their fear of rejection is triggered. They go into panic mode, and they do anything to restore that connection. They may not even remember the reason for the original meltdown, because they are now faced with something more terrifying – the fear that their caregiver will reject and abandon them.
What’s worse is that during time-out, parents are instructed to ignore the child’s cries and pleas – for a predetermined length of time. And because most children have very little concept of time, those “few minutes” in time out seem like an eternity. And during that time, the child has an acute feeling of disconnection.
Eventually, of course, the time out ends, and the parents have the opportunity to reconnect with the child. But at what cost?
And this is my challenge with time out.
The sense of connection kids have with their caregiver is precious, perhaps one of the most precious connections they will ever experience. That connection influences kids’ relationships to others, and even to themselves. Children with a poor connection to their caregivers are at higher risk of self esteem issues, relationship challenges, and emotional difficulties.
Even more than that, time out doesn’t actually teach kids how to resourcefully manage emotions.
Instead, it teaches them that their emotions are wrong and that they need to hide their true feelings (you can be angry but you better not show it).
It teaches them that we only accept them when they’re “good” or when they behave according to “our rules”.
It teaches kids to pay more attention to what others think of them, rather than their own feelings.
It teaches them that there’s a part of them that’s flawed and unlovable, and must be suppressed.
And finally, it teaches kids that our love is conditional.
“But it works!” people say. So does spanking. But I don’t recommend that either. The key to permanent behaviour change is through love, not through fear.
It’s time to send “time-out” into time out.
Let’s start having “time-in” instead.
Let’s acknowledge and normalise those strong, scary feelings – because adults have them too.
Let’s help our kids navigate the minefield of emotions.
Let’s show our kids that it’s ok to feel angry, hurt, frustrated, and upset.
Let’s teach our kids how to manage strong emotions by being outstanding role models ourselves, and dealing with our emotions in a positive, resourceful way.
If we yell when we’re angry, so will our kids.
If we swear when we’re frustrated, so will our kids.
If we belittle, criticise, or nag at others when we’re feeling hurt – so will our kids.
The only place for time-out is if WE need a respite from our emotions.
And its a great way to demonstrate how to remove ourselves from a situation to calm ourselves down (rather than forcing it).
That’s not to say we accept inappropriate behaviour. Permissive parenting isn’t ideal, either – because kids need boundaries.
If our kids do something that clearly violates the standards of acceptable behaviour, then that behaviour needs to be addressed. And not through punitive punishment, but by setting limits and enforcing natural consequences. For example, kids need to know that if they draw on the walls, then they need to help clean it up. If they break someone else’s toy, then they need to fix it or replace it with one of their own.
One day, I hope we all look back on our “time out” attempts in the same way we now look at spanking. Ineffective, harmful, and completely unnecessary.
If you’re a parent or you work with kids, and you’re currently utilising time-out, I strongly encourage you to rethink your approach. It’s ok to admit our mistakes and find a better way. When we know better, we do better. After all, that’s what parenting is about. That’s what LIFE is about. And it’s never too late to make a change.