Time outs have been in the parenting tool box for as long as I can remember. I even remember early in my career as a therapist (and long before becoming a parent) that I would have promoted this type of consequence, because after all, from a behavioral perspective it removes any payoff for the behavior causing the behavior to decrease. As I have grown professionally and as a person, I no longer subscribe to this.
Here's why. While this type of consequence for a behavior may work in reducing the behavior, it is not beneficial for our relationship with our child (click here to find out more about the importance of attachment). For those of you that have read my other posts, you know that I talk a lot about how every behavior has a need that drives it (the need for attention, comfort, food, sleep, etc). When we place a child in a corner, or alone in their room, we are not meeting the need. We are not nurturing the relationship. And we are not helping them manage their behavior.
Time out typically looks something like this. Child does something, parent responds with time out. Child is placed in a chair, corner, room, etc. Parent ignores child's crying or yelling until time is up. Then parent returns. Some people make their child stop crying or yelling before starting the time, some don't. Either way the general concept is remove your attention and remove child from the situation.
The unintentional message we send when we remove our attention, affection, and isolate our child is that our love is conditional. You may be thinking "how is this possible". Think about this from a child's perspective. They did something that you do not approve of and therefore they are placed in isolation and often times ignored until their "time is up". So that means that when they do something you don't like, you remove your attention and affection (which translates into love). While this is never any parent's intention, this may in fact be the way it is interpreted.
To highlight this point further let's look at the fact that every behavior has a need. If our response to a behavior is time out, we never take the time to discover what motivated the behavior and we never meet our child's need. Without this information how can we assist the child in managing this behavior in the future and working through it? How can we meet the need that they had so that they don't need to engage in this behavior. What are we really teaching with time out if we aren't problem solving with our child to help them manage the behaviors.
I know I have just highlighted all of the things about time out that I find problematic. There is one aspect of it that I do find helpful. Removing the child from a situation. There are times when a child needs to be removed or placed somewhere else in order for them to regroup or change gears. This however can be done in a less punitive and more effective way which will enhance your relationship and not harm it.
So what do I do instead?
1) Be curious. When your child does something that you don't like or find appropriate, ask them about it. "I wonder why you hit your brother?" . There may not always be a clear answer but getting used to being curious will prevent you from going to that place of threatening a consequence. This is also a good way to start to find the motivation or need behind a behavior.
2) Verbalize how the behavior impacts others or why it isn't appropriate. Children are learning. They are driven by impulses and need guidance in learning what is and is not OK. You may feel like you repeat yourself often but this is because for young children impulses rule over logic (and understanding consequences). Keep calm and continue to repeat yourself. They will eventually get it.
3)Remove child from the situation. If you have to remove your child and give them a "time out" make sure you stay with them. Offer your support or just sit with them. I like to start this process by saying that we are going to take some time to regroup. I then take my child to a quiet place and sit with them. Depending on what they need in the moment I do different things. I empathize with what they are feeling ( ex'you are really frustrated"). Sometimes I just sit with them while they cry and get all their feelings out. Sometimes I do breathing exercises or a rock meditation. I am flexible. I give them space if they need it (lets face it sometimes we are the source of their anger or frustration). I offer my support and I am present.
This sends the message that I am here for them. Not only does it allow me to guide them through this behavior and their emotions but it also shows them that I am here, I love them, and I can handle their negative feelings and behaviors. The best part is it continues to strengthen your relationship with your child.
Claudia Glassman is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Registered Play Therapist, and Parenting Coach who offers one on one coaching services. Claudia is passionate about helping parents find joy and gain confidence in their parenting abilities. Her vision is to share her knowledge and bring awareness to the importance of the relationship that we have with our children.