Timeouts: Good for Adults, but Not for Kids
Timeouts—just like spanking, shaming, and ridicule—make kids’ problems worse.
Posted September 28, 2017
Most parents and caregivers know they shouldn’t hit kids. They’re also aware that emotional punishments — shaming, yelling, ridiculing — can have unhappy, unintended consequences. But the same adults often believe it’s okay to isolate kids when the adult doesn’t like the way the children are behaving.
We all get overwhelmed sometimes. That’s when we’re most likely to behave badly, act out, or say things we shouldn’t. It’s as true for adults as it is for kids. But there’s one big difference: Adult brains have the capacity to process emotions and find the calm insight and perspective that are necessary for wise action. (Of course, not all adults have developed those abilities.)
Kids’ brains, however, aren’t sufficiently mature to do this; their neurological capacity for insight starts developing with puberty and doesn’t fully mature until early adulthood.
If you notice you’re losing it, give yourself a timeout: Count to 10, take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, repeat an affirmation you’ve memorized, and attune to how much you love the child you think is doing something bad. Spending time with kids can be draining, but acting out of exhaustion with irritability is not likely to go well for you or the child.
Why Adults Like Timeouts for Kids
1. Efficacy — Timeouts seem to work: You send a child to a timeout, and the bad behavior stops.
2. Nonviolence — Timeouts get the child’s attention without you having to resort to spanking, yelling, etc.
3. Logic — Time away from people seems to be a logical consequence of antisocial behavior.
4. Breathing space — Timeouts give everyone a chance to calm down.
5. Hope of remorse — Adults think kids will use the timeout to realize the errors of their ways, maybe even vowing to be good.
What’s Wrong with Timeouts
1. Shame, leading to passive compliance or rebellious anger — Children, especially sociable ones, experience timeouts as punishment. And like all punishments, timeouts are humiliating. The resulting shame has two possible outcomes: (a) The child “realizes” they’re a bad person, maybe becoming more compliant, but over time losing the happy confidence you want them to have; or (b) the child gets angry and needs to rebel, which is healthier than going sadly compliant, but not the outcome you intended.
2. Fear of abandonment — Banishing a child from social contact, even for a few minutes, can trigger innate fears of abandonment.
3. Self-esteem damage — When a child misbehaves intentionally — no reasonable adult would punish a child for ignorance or a mistake — they’re not feeling very good about themselves anyway. The isolation of a timeout just confirms that negative self-image.
4. Rejection of authentic self — Timeouts communicate that the important adults in a child's life are not interested in their authentic self, including their messy, troubled, angry feelings.
5. Climate of fear — Like all punishments, timeouts create an adversarial atmosphere, where the big person gets to make the rules, and the small, powerless one has to obey. Yes, adults must make rules for kids, and kids have to follow those rules, but there are ways to do it that don’t erode kids’ healthy self-concept and confidence.
6. Scientific ignorance — Kids’ brains aren’t capable of the reflection and insight necessary for self-calming. They need help and support doing that, not isolation.
7. Destruction of trust and intimacy — Timeouts slam the door on communication with a loving adult, just when a child is feeling most confused and unhappy.
8. Erosion of autonomy — Any punishment is an implicit demonstration that adults know better. Timeouts rob kids of self-respect and decision-making confidence.
9. Feelings go underground — A child in timeout learns that adults aren’t interested in their real feelings, only their “pleasant” self. If their bond with the timeout-imposing adult is strong enough, they learn to reject and try to suppress their “bad” feelings.
10. Boomerang effect — When a child rejects their “bad” feelings — anger, confusion, jealousy, etc. — and then suppresses the expression of those feelings, the feelings don’t go away. Those “bad” feelings will show up somewhere, maybe sooner, maybe later, in a magnified or distorted form.
What to Do Instead
1. Learn to regulate your own emotions. Start with yourself. Make sure you’re a good model of emotional self-regulation. Learn whatever techniques you need to radiate wisdom, kindness, calm, and loving connection, even when you’re frazzled. Even more necessary, perhaps, is the grace of humble, good-natured self-acceptance, so you can apologize to your child when you don’t live up to that standard.
2. Set clear, reasonable boundaries. There are things a child can’t be allowed to do: hitting, biting, etc. Make sure the child knows exactly what those unacceptable behaviors are. In a quiet, friendly moment, discuss the rules in clear, child-friendly terms. When the child finds a new violation — taunting a sibling, for example — set the new boundary explicitly.
3. Create a quiet corner. When everything’s good in the child’s world, help them choose a place for ‘time-ins.’ This is a quiet corner — maybe a teepee, if space allows — they can take themselves to when they’re feeling overwhelmed and want a bit of quiet time. A place they choose to be and aren’t banished to. Include books, pillows, cuddly toys, whatever the child finds comforting.
4. Prepare the child to sail through problem situations. When you anticipate you might encounter problem behavior — a child insisting you buy a toy in the grocery store, for example — do some advance preparation. State your plans clearly. For example, “We’re shopping for groceries today. We’re not buying anything that’s not on the list,” and then stay outside the store until the child agrees to that. Demonstrate respect for the child’s autonomy and desires by telling them about something on the list they’ll be happy about, and give them some decision-making power in one or more choices (fruit, breakfast cereal, the shape of pasta, etc.).
5. Role-play. Most kids love the idea of reversing roles with adults, and even toddlers can get into role-playing where the adult plays the “bad” child, and the child plays the “mean” adult. Role-playing, and then switching roles, is a great way to help a child understand the need for certain rules and behaviors. That understanding goes a long way toward future compliance.
6. Be alert for warning signals. Watch for the warning signs of impending meltdown and misbehavior. Whenever possible, do what’s needed to prevent it, whether that involves food, quiet time together, a hug, whatever.
Dealing With In-the-Moment Misbehavior
1. Be a Jedi. Wendy Thomas Russell writes, “We all have a Dark Side; that doesn’t mean we need to give into it.” You are the adult. It is your job to keep yourself calm, wise, and strong.
2. Stay with them. A child needs your support and calm presence most when they’re overwhelmed by their emotions and behaving badly. When you walk away, banish, or ignore a child, you’re sending the message that your love is conditional on their good behavior.
3. Name the emotion, and empathize. When a child is acting badly, show them you understand and respect what they’re feeling. For example, “You want ice cream right now. I need you to have dinner first. That’s making you feel sad. I get sad sometimes too.” Be friendly and matter-of-fact, kindly and calming staying with your position that the child have dinner first, while simultaneously affirming their right to have contrary emotions.
4. Investigate. Misbehavior contains an important message for a wise adult. Children don’t have the self-awareness or the communication sophistication to know what’s going on or to explain. So, ask yourself what the child is trying to communicate: Hunger? Exhaustion? Need for a hug? Anger? Boredom? Jealousy? Overstimulation? Discuss your hypotheses with the child, and see what you can do to solve the problem together.
5. Listen and be open to change. When your child objects to a rule, talk about it. Consider why you have set it, and whether it’s (still) necessary. Even if your child is not expressing themselves appropriately (they won’t be!), be willing to change your mind. They might be right.
6. As much as possible, let natural consequences happen. If a child refuses to wear a raincoat on a rainy day, remind them of the consequences, but let them get wet if they insist. The younger they are, the more you’ll have to be ready to intervene before it goes too far (after 15 minutes of getting wet, say), but nothing works better than natural consequences.
7. Offer the quiet corner. Ask the child if they want to go to the quiet corner they’ve already set up. When kids feel in charge of choosing a timeout, it’s not humiliating. In fact, choosing to go into a quiet corner can help them learn about taking responsibility for managing their feelings.