It can be far more hurtful than we realize. Here’s why.
“Time OUT!” announces Dad, using his last grain of patience to call up a well-known way to show Simon, clearly and firmly, that his behaviour is unacceptable. As an adult, it is easy to understand why this response seems to make sense; at first glance it seems logical and reasonable.
After all, who was not assigned time-out in some form as a kid – and we turned out okay, didn’t we?! Well – yes – we did, but it’s also likely that we have forgotten how painful it was to be separated from those we loved and trusted at moments when we were already having difficulty coping with our feelings. Many of us responded by building up our own defences, and our lives were not necessarily enriched by these early learning experiences.
Of course, Dad’s intention is not to hurt Simon, nor to confuse him. On the contrary, he wants Simon to understand that misbehaviour has consequences, and he hopes that a “cooling off period” will help. For whatever reason, Simon is doing something irritating (or downright crazy-making!) to meet his own needs for attention or power, or even to seek revenge on Dad. It may also be true that Dad needs a few quiet moments to take care of his own overload, which is an absolutely healthy and positive intention.
What are the problems with time-out? Firstly, since we are innately social beings, time-out is experienced by children as akin to solitary confinement. It is far more hurtful than we realize to isolate or segregate a child who is communicating with misbehaviour. It can ironically result in the child increasing rather than decreasing their (mis)behaviour. This is because isolation causes stress, which leads to increased adrenaline and cortisol in the child’s body and brain.
Recent research demonstrates that time-out is not appropriate for young children, because it is assigned at a stressful moment, and then itself triggers a heightened stress response in the child. The right time for time-out is when an individual is mature enough to “take a break” without being told to do so – typically around 10 or 11 years of age!
A second problem with time-out is that parents may believe it provides a child with an opportunity to think about what they did. They question why, instead of a calm, insightful kid afterward, they have a fuming little individual who is seeking their revenge. This is simply because the child’s brain is not yet wired up for self-reflection, so time-out provokes a fight or flight response rather than something more useful.
Interestingly, this pattern is often reversed in kids with autism spectrum disorder, for whom occasional time-out provides relief from the challenges of navigating the social world. As with all else in parenting, we need to know our children as individuals, and meet their needs accordingly.
A better response
There are many mindful and empathic responses to misbehaviour, which include preventing it by learning to diagnose the child’s goals, and meeting them in healthy, positive ways. Sometimes a wordless hug works wonders, sometimes taking a short walk together helps, and sometimes leaving a scene (together!) is needed.
These are loving ways to show a kid that you see he is out of his depth, that you care about his ability to manage, and that you “hear” the communication he is sending through behaviour. After all, our kids need to know we have their back when the going gets rough – and isolating them in time-out simply cannot communicate this message!