Is “Time Out” OUT?

Let me guess. You clicked on this link because you have it all figured out- the grocery store tantrums, the backseat wrestling matches, the refusal to wear shoes- these crises are a thing of the past in your household, right? If you are a parent of a preschooler, we know better! But, the good news is, you have found your tribe. Look around the halls of Georgetown Hill and know that none of us have it all figured out, and we are all searching for real advice about how to get out of the house in the morning, navigate through Harris Teeter, or even just make it until bedtime.

“Time-out” seems like a viable option for disciplining our little ones. Some of us likely spent some of our own childhood sitting on a designated time-out step. There is certainly something to be said for getting some space when emotions run high. In fact, when behavior takes a nosedive, one important thing for us to remember is that reason has left the building. You, moms and dads, are firmly planted in the world of emotion, passion and reflex, and we must react (or not react) accordingly. Don’t wait for your child to “see the light” while they are throwing banana slices against the car window. It is not going to happen. They are in the midst of crisis and confusion- an entirely unreasonable state.

Here is the basic problem with time-out: it is punishment, not discipline, and punishments do not create the outcomes that we are hoping for. Humiliating, shaming and banishment are surely not our intentions, but they are the dark side of the time-out “strategy.” In our childhood, punishment was part of life, and when we look back on it, perhaps we think it is the way we learned to “be good.” But, now, we know better. Did you really sit on that step and think about how you will do better next time?

If our ultimate goal is to raise children who can make good decisions, be kind, and develop healthy relationships (and the list goes on…), punishment is simply not the means to this end. Punishment, by its nature, teaches a child that he or she is bad. People who feel bad about themselves typically behave badly. Sitting on the “naughty chair” does not teach the child that the chair is naughty or that the action is naughty- it teaches the child that he or she is a naughty person. Time-out also does nothing to promote emotional regulation. Sure, if we send them (or drag them?) to their rooms, they may eventually calm down (or fall asleep). But, that has done nothing to help the child recognize, name and calm his or her emotions. Isolation is not teaching them anything other than to confirm what they already fear. Further, what occurs in time-out is that a child can experience feelings of abandonment and a “love withdrawal,” when parents appear to suspend their love until the child complies. Even if this is unintentional, you can imagine how this teaches the child about conditional love and acceptance with strings attached and creates feelings of guilt- neither is helping us with our end game.

And now that we know better, it is time we do better. So, here is how we do better:

  • First, we are trying to get away from punishment, but that does not mean that we are not disciplining. When you are not in the heat of the moment, that is the time to calmly discuss limits and consequences. For example, “you need to wear shoes outside in case you step on something sharp,” rather than “wear your shoes or you can’t bring your blankie.” Or, “when you hit, it really hurts the person,” as opposed to “you better behave, or else!” The consequences in these cases are real (you could step on something sharp or you hurt someone) and not based on a punishment.
  • When things begin to boil over, this is when you need to connect and communicate, not separate and isolate. Even emotions that aren’t happy and peaceful are still part of who we are as children and as adults. Don’t send them away when they are showing these more unpleasant emotions. That is exactly when they need to be close to you. Love them through all of it. You may even call this a “time-IN.” You are proactively keeping the pot from boiling over by connecting with your child and helping them through the rough patch. Start to notice those warning signs. Replace time-out with “take a breather,” and name and validate their feelings: “it must be so frustrating to stop playing legos and go to the store.” Give them real coping options. “When I get frustrated sometimes it helps to wrap up like a pretzel, want to try it together?”
  • Once the boiling point has been reached, don’t bother to have a conversation or reason through it. They are simply not in touch with that side of their brain in those “flight-or-fight” moments. I hope I am not the first person to tell you- it is ok to let them cry! Crying is a normal reaction to overwhelming emotions. Just don’t leave them, physically or emotionally.
  • Instead, create a safe zone for your child as soon as possible. That means that you need to calm yourself, lower your voice, and stay nearby. They may not want you to touch them or hold them, but the idea is to tell them and show them that they are safe when they feel completely unsafe inside their head. Remind them that you are here when they are ready to talk or just for a hug. Note that the safe zone does not include giving in to whatever you just said no to…
  • When all else fails and your own boiling point has been reached, give yourself a breather. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that the person who needs the time-out is actually you…and that is ok! Parenting is the hardest job you will ever have. Take five or ten minutes to regroup. Tell your child that you are taking five minutes on the porch to breathe deeply and you will be right back. You got this.