Before I became a parent, I always assumed I’d use “time-outs” if and when I had children. It seemed the enlightened alternative to spanking and it made sense: A child experiences a little isolation in order to feel the consequences of his actions and have some time alone to reflect on what he’s done.
Of course, toddlers and preschoolers really aren’t capable of the reasoning required for this to have the desired consequences, but it turns out there’s even more to consider when it comes to using time-outs.
Studies in neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to adapt — show that repeated experiences actually change the physical structure of the brain. Since many of the interactions between children and caregivers relate to discipline in some way, it’s important that parents consider how they respond to their kids’ misbehavior because it affects their development.
Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, in this Time article, write that even when presented in a patient and loving manner, time-outs typically offer children isolation, which teaches them that “when they make a mistake, or when are having a hard time, they will be forced to be by themselves—a lesson that is often experienced, particularly by young children, as rejection. Further, it communicates to kids, “I’m only interested in being with you and being there for you when you’ve got it all together.”
Siegel and Bryson write:
When children are overtaxed emotionally, they sometimes misbehave; their intense emotions and the demands of the situation trump their internal resources. The expression of a need or a big feeling therefore results in aggressive, disrespectful, or uncooperative behavior—which is simply proof that children haven’t built certain self-regulation skills yet. Misbehavior is often a cry for help calming down, and a bid for connection.
I’m not sure if I would have bought that hook, line, and sinker, unless I’d done the research about — and had the experience of — parenting adopted children. From the very beginning, I forced myself to do “time-ins” with my kids. I say forced because there were times when I wanted time-outs, when everything in me felt like both parties needed a big fat break from each other and a separation might help the kids “get” it. But because of what I knew about attachment and connection, I intentionally moved closer to them, and stayed close, during a meltdown or poor behavior. Even when they didn’t want to be touched — and who does when they’re really angry? — I stayed close by. As soon as there was an opening to come even closer, I moved in. What I have seen time and time again, is that this approach calms things down more quickly, shortens the duration of the episodes, and improves behavior in the longer-term. (I understand that if kids are really violent or there are other extenuating circumstances, additional interventions may be needed.)
The article makes the point that parents often think that time-outs help children calm down and gain insight, but instead, they frequently “make children angrier and more dysregulated, leaving them even less able to control themselves or think about what they’ve done, and more focused on how mean their parents are to have punished them.” When children are thinking about how horrible their parents are, they miss opportunities “to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving skills.”
This makes sense if we really believe that discipline is ultimately about teaching and formation, rather than punishment. One of my biggest lessons in parenting so far is how much of what I do and don’t do is about me, and not my kids. Discipline is often an area where this comes out the most in parents, and it’s a tough lesson.
Does this mean you should stop giving time-outs if you use them? Not necessarily. I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all parenting philosophy. It depends on so many factors, including age and background of a child, and the exact details of how time-outs are handled. But I think the studies about what makes for healthy brain development in children — which leads to healthier behavior in the long run — are worth any parent’s attention.
Have you or do you use time-outs? If so, have they been effective? What is your approach to discipline?
Image: E+N Photographies/Unsplash