Lately, it seems parents and carers feel disempowered. We’re not supposed to smack, and now even time-out is being questioned. So how do we discipline? And what’s wrong with time-out, anyway?
Discipline (the verb) can mean either ‘to teach’, or ‘to control’ (Gordon, T. 1989). If we use discipline to control children, then we rely on reward and punishment to change a child’s behaviour – to gain compliance.
One of the most commonly used punishments is time-out. Many schools, childcare centres and parents rely on time-out as a punishment, to discipline children.
During the years my daughter attended childcare we had several discussions around her fear of punitive time-out. Her distress, and my experience as a parent educator, drove me to investigate the effects of time-out.
What is Time-Out?
For the purposes of this discussion, the definition of time-out is a punishment. A child is excluded from being with others for a certain period of time. They may stay in the same room (say, the ‘naughty corner/step’), or be moved to another room for a certain period of time (for example, one minute for each year of life). The parent or carer controls when and where the child goes to time-out, and when the child is allowed to return to the class or family.
A Child’s Experience of Time-Out in Childcare
Many years ago I recorded a wide-ranging discussion with my daughter. She had just turned five, and was not happy about going to childcare. One of her concerns was that she was afraid of being counted (1,2,3), because the threat at the end was . . . time-out. As this transcript shows, her fear of this punishment was palpable.
Phoebe: “I didn’t get into trouble. We don’t get into trouble. We just get to three We just have to . . . they just say ‘OK you’re onto one!’ And when you’re onto free you’re . . . um (voice breaking with fear) . . . and when you’re onto free, um that’s your last, that’s your last warning when you get onto free. When you get onto two, that’s . . . you’ve got one last chance to go, OR . . . time-out!”
Mum: “Oh really. Three is time out. And you look very worried about time out. “
Phoebe: “Uh ha”
Interestingly, my daughter had never actually been put into punitive time-out at either childcare or home. Her deep concern was based on her observation of the effects of time-out on her friends. I wondered to myself – if time-out had such an effect on observers – what was the experience of children who were actually punished with time-out?
The Effects of Time-Out.
Time-out and isolation, ostracism and self-concept
When a child is excluded from interacting with others (time-out), they are effectively ostracised (isolated from relationship) by those more powerful than them – parents and teachers.
Recent brain research suggests that isolating people from others important to them causes ‘relational pain’. Relational pain travels the same neural paths in our brain as physical pain or illness. (Siegel, D. and Bryson, T. 2014). Is time-out really a gentle alternative to smacking, when the child has a similar physical experience of both punishments?
Ostracism studies in adult relationships found that excluding people threatens the needs of: self-esteem; belonging; control; and meaningful existence (Williams, K, 2007). If this is the effect on adults, how much greater is the impact of social isolation on children?
Excluding a child from family/class activity, while keeping the child in the same room (‘quiet time’), is perceived as a ‘softer’ punishment than banishment to another room. However, quiet time may be more harmful. A child essentially becomes ‘invisible’ (think of the dunce’s hat). Not being acknowledged, the public shame of exclusion, feeling as though you don’t exist . . . isn’t this potentially devastating for a child?
Time-out does not teach social and emotional life skills
“What’s done to children, they will do to society” (Karl A. Menninger). Remember – discipline means ‘to teach’. At its essence, time-out is a method of resolving conflict between a caregiver and a child, where the caregiver wins and the child loses. When parents or caregivers use their power to put a child in time-out, children learn that this is how to resolve conflict.
Is time-out a useful relationship skill? How will a child put time-out into practice when playing with friends, or in future adult relationships? Do they learn that when you don’t like what someone else does, one way to deal with it is to exclude that person? Conceivably, children subjected to time-out may learn to bully by excluding their peers or siblings. A recent study with teenagers has uncovered social exclusion as being more damaging to a young person’s mental health, than other bullying behaviour such as teasing or spreading rumours.
Time-out does not seek to understand the reason for the behaviour
When we use time-out to punish a child for misbehaving, we forget to look for the unmet need that led to the behaviour. They may have been bullied at school, or they may simply be tired and hungry. Their parents may have argued this morning, or they may be very worried about their sick grandparent. When we put a child straight into time-out, have we then lost an opportunity to understand and connect with our child?
Time-out and divorce, separation and trauma
Consider the potential effect of time-out on children: whose parents have separated or are separating; who have been adopted or fostered; who have separation anxiety; or are affected by trauma. Time-out with these children may exacerbate feelings of abandonment, rejection or confusion.
These children need connection, not isolation. They need to have their underlying issues understood. They need to be held in a safe space (physically and emotionally), in relationship, to help heal the hurt.
Alternatives to punitive time-out include:
- Replacing the use of rewards and punishment with positive relationship skills, including no-lose conflict resolution. Courses such as Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) teach how to avoid rewards and punishment; to communicate respectfully with children; and help them build an inner discipline.
- Active Listening (also known as emotion coaching) when your children are unhappy or agitated, to help calm them down. Recognising what they are feeling is an essential step in children learning to self-regulate. Active Listening helps you comfort and connect with your child, and you can then help them reflect on their emotions
- ‘Time-away’;’ Cosy Corner’; ‘Calm Down Space’. Have a special place for your child to regroup and calm down. Let her or him listen to music, play, draw, or read – similar to the way we, as adults, calm ourselves. Your child can then return when feeling better about the situation and ready to reconnect to the relationship – in the child’s own time. This also helps them learn the skills of self-regulation.
- ‘Time-in’ – being with and enjoying the company of children, giving them love and attention, remembering what you like about them, and letting them know. Delight in the little person who is in your care.
This blog was condensed from the extended article, The Trouble with Time Out.
Gordon, T, 1989. Teaching Children Self Discipline: At Home and at School. 1st ed. America: Random House.
Daniel J Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson. 2014. Time-outs Are Hurting Your Child. [ONLINE] Available at: http://time.com/3404701/discipline-time-out-is-not-good/. [Accessed 27 April 15].
Williams, Kipling (2007). Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology.