Updated: Jun 18
Time out is short of “Time Out from positive reinforcement”. It is an extended form of parental ignoring where children are removed for a brief period from adult attention in the hope they will calm down.
When Time Out emerged, it was intended as the last step in positive parenting models. It was sold as ‘a non-violent response to conflict’, a tool for parents to use instead of using physical forms of punishment. I will repeat that. Time Out was developed as a tool to offer parents something less harmful than physical forms of punishments, such as smacking and spanking and hitting. But if you are here reading this blog my guess is that you do not partake in physical punishments. (Physical punishment is prohibited in schools, nurseries and day care in all of the UK. from January 2020 it is now illegal for parents to physically punish their child in Scotland and Wales and there are working groups asking for legislation to also be changed in England to make it illegal).
To share some of my personal journey with this, 15 years ago and while I was training to become a clinical psychologist I ran parenting groups and taught parents how to carry out Time Out on their last week of training, and as a last resort to challenging behaviour. These parenting groups were challenging to run with parents who held personal stories of trauma and only used punitive strategies for parenting their children who were usually displaying extreme challenging behaviours as a consequence of this. However, Time Out has now become a stand-alone technique that is widely overused weekly, if not daily in homes, schools and heartbreakingly, in nurseries too.
Time Out gives adults the expectation that children will reflect on what they have done and use logic to consider other solutions, fostering an internal sense of responsibility and conscience. However, children often act on impulse and their behaviours often don’t make sense even to them, they just have a strong feeling and act out. Most children who receive Time Out lack the ability to sit and reflect on their actions. If they had these skills they wouldn’t be exploding with big emotions in the first place!
One of the arguments against Time Out is that it goes against the evidence-base on child and brain development. The other problem with Time Out is that it closes the door on communication. Children experience feelings of isolation and abandonment when placed in time out. There is loss of contact, which can also be interpreted as loss of a parent’s love, especially for younger children. This can be particularly risky for children who have a predisposition to anxiety. The isolation may increase a child’s fears, and the more anxious they become, the more likely they may be to exhibit behavioural outbursts, such as destroying their toys or room during a timeout. Furthermore, children often believe their isolation is a result of them “being bad” and this can lead to them escalating behaviours as they have nothing to lose.
For most children, Time Out is exactly the opposite of what they need when their behaviour goes off the rails. Defiance, aggression and other limit pushing behaviour are all ways of communicating that our child needs our help. The brain has switched off, emotions are running high and they need us to tune in to them and help them soothe, not send them away in anger.
However, adults have the gargantuan task of needing to be patient, being good role models for their child and staying calm in the face of emotional distress. As adults and parents we NEED to take care of ourselves so we can renew our reserves for our own wellbeing and in the hope we can give our children the support they need.
While Time Out for children is often punitive and developmentally an illogical technique, I am a big supporter of regular TIME OUT for adults! We need to adopt the advice airlines give us on flights into our every day. If you are traveling with a child and an oxygen mask becomes necessary, you need to secure YOUR mask before turning your attention to your child’s needs. This is good parenting advice for everyday living.
Take care of yourself so that you can be present for, and take care of your child. Make sure you are well nourished, and well rested. Don’t feel guilty about giving in to screen time so that you can take a Time Out for yourself.
One way to carve out time for you in the midst of the chaos of home life is to be honest with your child (and your partner if he/she is there) and say something like, “Things are not working right now. I need a break.” Once you’ve said this, take a break! Place your child in a safe place with books, toys, or a screen and take a deep breath, make a cup of tea. Take some time out for you! (I will be discussing this more in a future blog coming up next week!)
Children need a lot of time and a lot of support from loving adults to learn skills for good behaviour. Children learn how to behave through comfort and safe relationships with adults. So it is important to always keep the bigger picture in mind, the idea that you are always on your child’s team, and you are there to help them learn and develop.
When your child is hijacked by adrenaline and other fight or flight hormones, their brain isn’t working anymore they are just flooded with emotion. At these times, they may need to be removed from a situation for their safety or the safety of others. But rather than sending them to their room or having Time Out consider a “Time-in” where you stay with your child and acknowledge how they are feeling. This is not a punishment; it is an opportunity to reconnect so your child can learn emotional regulation.
If your child moves into a meltdown, don't try to reason or use logic. Create safety, blocking any physical contact firmly but gently and use compassion to help your child express and work through emotions that are driving the big feelings and behaviours.
By sitting with your child, staying calm and keeping them and others around them safe, you become ‘an emotion coach’, which is a very different role than that of an authoritative parent giving out a punishment. Coaching a child to take deep breaths, choose a calming activity, or helping them express their feelings helps your child remain connected to you and learn ways of managing these feelings so that when they crop back up in the future they are better equipped to manage them.
Children need to learn that big emotions will come and pass like waves. If you are able to tolerate feelings when they come you will be teaching your child that all feelings are acceptable and there are ways you can manage them. Once the feelings have passed they can start to learn about the behaviour that was wrong or inappropriate and the experience itself.
No More Time Outs?
Research shows Time Out can be effective when it is performed properly for the behaviours it was intended. But how many of you reading this today (or your child's nursery or school...?) have been trained in the proper use of Time Out, including its location, length, limit to what behaviours it can be used for, how to set it up and explain it to your child, and using it only as the very last resort in your toolbox when other parenting techniques to promote cooperation and connection have been unsuccessful? My guess is not many. Because if you have received the training you will know that using Time Out should be so rare you are likely to only use it once or twice a year so it can therefore not be your 'parenting technique' of choice!
The overuse and misuse of Time Out is why I no longer advocate for the use of Time Out as a parenting strategy. Because having a tantrum because of hunger should not result in you ignoring your child but instead tending to their needs. And when your child is upset that screen time is over, that should also not result in them being isolated for expressing a feeling we may find difficult to accept. It is normal to feel angry when something you enjoy stops happening and it is our job as parents to help our children manage anger appropriately, not send them away giving them the message that showing anger ‘is not okay’.
Moreover I strongly believe that children should always have access to a parent if they are in distress or need help calming down. A child who is sad or desperate for a parent’s help should never be isolated. Ignoring your child in these moments only gives them the message that they are not loved when big feelings take over and it only serves to create a wedge in your relationship.
As is the case with all discipline, the focus should be on the your relationship with your child. Focusing on your child's wellbeing first and foremost so that you can learn better behaviour with your support and guidance.
If you are struggling with challenging behaviour or feel that talking 1:1 would be useful to discuss your individual story do not hesitate to contact me or book in a 20min telephone consultation.