The Trouble with Time-Out

Larissa Dann                           

Discipline - the perennial parenting problem. Discipline (the verb) can mean either ‘to teach’, or ‘to control’ (Gordon, T. 1989). In our quest to parent effectively, to do the best by our children, ourselves and our family, we think carefully about the best way to discipline our child.

If we use discipline to control, then we rely on reward and punishment to change our children’s behaviour. 

This article questions the use of one of the most commonly used punishments - time-out. The majority of the parenting books we read, parenting websites, parenting courses, or parents we know, suggest time-out as a benign punishment.  Most schools and childcare centres rely on time-out 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 purpose of this discussion, the definition of time-out is as a punishment. A child is put in a room or place, and excluded from being with others for a certain period of time.

Examples include the ‘naughty corner’; being sent to another room for a minute of each year of life; or being in the same room but separated from family activity.  Time-out is often referred to as a ‘consequence’, rather than a punishment.

The key points defining time-out are that the child has no control around when they are sent away, and when they can return.  The parent determines when and where the child goes to time-out, and when the child is allowed to return to the family.

History

The history of time-out is intriguing. According to Alfie Kohn (2005) time-out began as a way of controlling laboratory animal behaviour. The term derives from “time out from positive reinforcement”. This means parents must consider what they can limit or withhold, and Kohn suggest that, most often, it will be love and attention. That is, time-out means children feel parents withdraw their love for a period of time.  Time-out does not seem to have been applied to child raising until the late 1960s. 

Modify the environment

Time-out is quite different to those times when we, as parents, may simply need a break from interacting with our child.  In that case, we could choose to modify the environment.  We may suggest, respectfully, that we each go our separate ways for a short while. Your child may then choose to go to his or her room to calm down, and come out when he or she is ready.

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 recording and transcript show, 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 the company of others, they are being ostracised by those more powerful than them – parents and teachers.  Children in time-out are isolated from relationship (Siegel, D. and Bryson, T. 2014).

Recent brain research has discovered that isolating people from relationships 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 (in the guise of time-out) is not a benign punishment.  If you have ever been on the receiving end of the ‘silent treatment’ as an adult, you will know the shame, the emotional pain, the loss of self-respect, the confusion (what had you done, to deserve this treatment?).

Professor Kip Williams, (Psychological Sciences, Purdue University, Indiana), specialises in studying ostracism in adult relationships.  His findings are that ostracism threatens four basic needs – self-esteem, belonging, control, and meaningful existence. 

Many adults will have coping mechanisms in place to help overcome the effects of being excluded.  But what happens with children? Will they have developed the resilience necessary to cope with social isolation?  How much greater is the impact on children of being ostracised by their parents or teachers?

Excluding a child from family/class activity, while keeping the child in the same room, is often thought to be a ‘softer’ punishment than banishment to a room.  A common euphemism for this type of discipline is 'quiet time'.  However, Williams' work suggests that 'quiet time' may in fact, be more harmful. A child essentially becomes ‘invisible’ when in time-out.  Anyone else in the room ignores their existence. Or they may taunt the child (remember the 'dunce's hat'?), knowing their 'victim' is unable to respond.  Not being acknowledged, the public shame of exclusion, feeling as though you don’t exist . . . how devastating could this experience be for a child?

A Personal Experience of Ostracism as a Parent

Some years ago, three older members of our family were discussing adult-type issues at the dinner table.  My four year old daughter did not understand the conversation, and felt left out.  To get my attention, she said, jokingly, “You don’t exist.  You doo-oont exiiii-iiist!"(in a sing-song voice).   She did not say this to hurt me.  She was simply trying to get some attention to have her needs met.

My reaction was fascinating. Even though the words came from my much loved young daughter, and I did not take her words personally (as I knew she spoke from her own unmet needs), I was devastated, and deeply, deeply hurt.  I felt my face go red, and tears spring to my eyes.  I was unable to participate in the conversation, and my immediate reaction was to leave the room and find a safe place.  I was astonished at this depth of emotion.

From this experience, I realised just how primal our reaction to ostracism, of even the most innocent form, can be. If this was how I felt as an adult – and I had the ability to analyse my response – how much greater could the devastation be for a child, who will have little context for understanding their deep reaction to such words or actions?

Research

There seems little research on time-out per se. Kohn quotes research that found  "children on the receiving end [of time-out] tend to have lower self esteem, [and] have poorer emotional health."  

One study examined how 2- 4 year olds in child-care felt about time-out.  Most had negative perceptions of their experience, including feeling alone, sad, disliked, and ignored by their peers. Many did not understand why they had been put in time-out, believing the reason to be dislike by their teacher and peers. (Readdick and Chapman, 2000, cited by Turner et al literature review, 2007). How then, does time-out affect self-worth?

Time-out to 'reflect'

Many parents put a child in time-out to ‘think about their behaviour’. However, is this realistic?  Will a child, while sitting in time-out, really reflect on their behaviour and how to improve in the future? “Hmmm.  What have I done wrong? I must change my behaviour”. The evidence says that, instead, they may think of themselves as ‘bad’ or unlikable “They mustn’t like me anymore”.  Children are likely to resent their parent “I hate Mum/Dad! They don't understand!” They may not know why they were punished, and become confused. “Why am I here?  I was just having fun.” 

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.

What do teachers or parents model when they use their power to isolate a child?  What life skills are children learning when parents use isolation to control them? 

I do not see time-out as a useful relationship skill. In fact, quite the opposite.  Emotional isolation in an intimate relationship is now acknowledged as abuse.

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.

When children are told to go to time-out, they lose the chance of learning how to problem-solve by taking into account other people's needs.  They do not learn to empathise or to consider others, but instead think of themselves ("Next time I'll lie so I'm not caught"). Instead of being taught about relationships and relationship skills, children are exposed to power from the parent (“I can and will make you do what I want!”).  

Time-out and 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. There may be a swirling current of unhappiness under our child's angry outburst, for which they've been punished.  They may have had no-one to play with at school, or they may simply be tired and hungry.  Have we then lost an opportunity to understand and connect with our child?  And do our children lose the chance to discover the real problem for themselves, and how it could be resolved, gently guided by us?

Time-out and the effect on parent-child relationship

Time-out may impact negatively on the relationship between parents and their children.  Children can feel scared of time-out, and may feel resentful, frustrated, hurt and angry (hence, the occasional trashing of rooms). They can feel misunderstood and confused.  Children who are afraid or resentful of their parents may begin to distance themselves emotionally, and the relationship between parent and child can suffer.

Time-out and the emotional impact on children

The Australian Association for Infant Mental Health's (AAIMH) Position Paper on Time Out (2009) suggests that time-out, particularly for under-3's, is problematic.  At this age, children have not learned to regulate their emotions, and need the presence of a caregiver to help them to feel safe, and contain their emotion.  Time-out separates young children from caregivers.  The paper suggests that many older children are similarly unable to manage their emotion, with time-out having a corresponding deleterious effect.

Time-out and self-soothing

The author and parent educator, Judy Arnall (2007), discusses another possible long-term consequence of using time-out.  When we, as adults, feel overwhelmed, we may choose to take time alone for ourselves to regroup.  The concern of Arnall is that, if children learn to fear time by themselves, they will not learn the essential life-skill of self-soothing.  They will learn to try to make others go away, rather than remove themselves.

Time-out and the potential for abuse

Time-out can be misused, and possibly even become an instrument of abuse.  Instances have been recorded of children being left in time-out for very lengthy periods of time, forgotten, or placed in broom cupboards or storage rooms (Turner et al, 2007).  Sometimes parents may lock their children in their room to enforce time-out, which is frightening for the 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. These children have already suffered a painful separation situation. Time-out may exacerbate the effects of trauma and parental separation, and children may experience feelings of abandonment, rejection or confusion.

Children in these situations need connection, not isolation.  They need to be held in a safe space (physically and emotionally), in relationship, to help heal the hurt.

Alternatives to time-out

Here are some suggestions you might like to consider, as alternatives to time-out:

  • Replacing the use of rewards and punishment with positive relationship skills, including no-lose conflict resolution (solving the problem with your child). Courses such as Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) teach parents 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.
  • 'Calm-me-jars' - jars filled with glitter in a viscous fluid, for children to hold and help them breathe to calmness.
  • Mindfulness with apps such as Smiling Minds.
  • Finger Labyrinths, or even walking a labyrinth if one is close by.

If you are concerned that time-out has damaged your relationship, then self-awareness, humility, and respectful communication skills can be tools of repair.

Our children bring sunshine to our lives.  On those occasions when it is hard to see the bright side of being a parent, we may be tempted to use time-out.  Perhaps being aware of the shadow side to time-out will encourage us to use, instead, skills that enhance our relationship with our children.

First published 28th April 2015.(updated 24/5/17)   Image used under license from Shutterstock  

References:

Arnall, Judy, 2007.  Discipline without Distress.  135 tools for raising caring, responsible children without time-out, spanking or bribery.  Professional Parenting, Canada

Australian Association of Infant Mental Health. 2009. http://www.aaimhi.org/inewsfiles/Position%20Paper%203.pdf. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.aaimhi.org/. [Accessed 29 May 15].

Gordon, Dr Thomas, 2000.  Parent Effectiveness Training. The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children. Three Rivers Press. New York.

Gordon, T, 1989. Teaching Children Self Discipline: At Home and at School. 1st ed. America: Random House.

Kohn, A., 2005. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason. 1st ed. New York: ATRIA Books.

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].

Daniel J Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson, 2014. No Drama Discipline. 1st ed. Brunswick, Victoria: Scribe Publications.

Turner, D. M., Nida, S. A., & Williams, K. D.  (2007, February).  Time-out:  A review of the psychological literature.  Paper presented at the meeting of the Southeastern Psychological Association, New Orleans.

Williams, Kipling (2007). Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology.

Resources:

Ostracism:

Frozen out: Why do we use the silent treatment?

Ostracism: Consequences and Coping - research by Professor Kipling Williams

Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion

A Resource on guiding children's behaviour, while avoiding time-out. By Best Start Resource Centre, Canada

Trauma

Blue Knot Foundation (Adults Surviving Child Abuse)

© Larissa Dann. 2015.Updated 2016.  All rights reserved

Comments

I think this is an excellent article but there is a need for punishment. When you bring up a kid you are bringing them up to be prepared for the outside world. The world is not always loving and educational. I really agree with the teaching and explaining aspects but transgression of clear rule in society leads to losing jobs, getting put in jail etc., at the extreme ends. Punishment is a part of the society they will encounter. Society is not even fair. The reason I write is that although I would like a world where the state/those with power do not get to control and punish, that is not the world my child will live in. In the real world, transgressing some limits leads to extreme outcomes which have non-negotiable bad consequences, social or otherwise. i.e., climbing electricity pylons or hitting a policeman. Over use of any punishment is a disaster but swinging to far and 'avoiding punishment' as a principle is probably not good.

Thank you for your comment, Adam. I think it comes down to whether a person acts out of compliance (which will happen if punishment is used), or consideration (where we rely on the person to consider their effect on others). Please see my blog on this subject, on the Gordon Training Parenting section of their website (or on my blog site).

I'm not sure that early childhood is the appropriate time to teach a child that the world is unfair. Children face conflict all the time anyway without timeout. The point of this approach is to teach children how to cope. Delivering punishment in the form of timeout is more for behavior control and establishing power. It is not a real learning experience for the outside world as you say. The point is not to avoid conflict but to give them the tools on how to handle it rather than adding more stress to children. So as to your concern for preparing children for the outside world, giving children the skills to self-regulate and teaching them to seek support from positive relationships and giving them the language to express their problems is exactly what they need to face the outside world.

Thank you - I agree. Peaceful, no-lose conflict resolution skills, the ability to self-regulate, and compassion for others and themselves. These skills are important for a child to develop, in preparation for adult hood. I cannot see time-out as helping our children develop such skills.

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