Should Parents Use Time-outs?

Parents end up feeling confused and wonder if they are effective.

Posted Dec 14, 2014

The notion of time-outs has been around for a long time. It is a behavioral management technique whereby a child who misbehaves is removed from the environment, and sent to sit in a chair or another designated spot for a period of time. The goal is to end the behavior. But when parents try to implement this technique, they end up feeling confused and wonder if it is really effective. As a child development specialist, I believe there are many problems with this method for both parents and children, and that there are more effective ways to work with children’s behavior.

Children hate time-outs because they are isolated from the family. They feel abandoned and angry and will commonly refuse to stay put. Parents end up facing a secondary battle, making their child stay in the time-out, and the situation escalates. To add to the drama, parents sometimes ask their child for an apology at the end of the time-out, ushering in battle number three. The end result is children and parents feeling upset.

Developmentally, young children do not understand the connection between cause and effect. So, imagine a three year old's confusion, when he grabs a cookie from the table and winds up sitting in a chair. He does not understand what is happening and will not learn much from the experience. If he feels angry about this enforced estrangement, when he gets up he may be raring to fight, and even grab another cookie the first chance he gets.

Being banished to a time-out, also can affect a child’s self-esteem negatively. The child sits in her room and thinks to herself, “Look at the fuss I've caused. I must be really bad.” When we work with children, it is best to set limits with them without harming their self-esteem. In addition, our approach should give children the tools they need for handling their impulses better in the future. Time-outs fail to achieve either goal.

It is crucial to understand that when a child misbehaves, he is having a problem, and needs his parents help. His actions are caused by difficult underlying emotions. He may be bored, tired, or angry, and overwhelmed by these feelings. He needs assistance to manage his emotions. For instance, if a child throws his toys around when his mom is breastfeeding a new sibling, he is probably feeling jealous and left out. Putting him in a chair enhances the feeling that he has lost his parent to the new baby, and that he is unloved. Furthermore, he is convinced that his emotions are not acceptable, that he is bad for having them, and he may decide to hide them for the sake of the relationship. When he gets up from the time-out, his emotions are now magnified, more family dramas ensue and everyone feels as miserable as before.

The best way to manage children’s behavior, is to help them to work through situations emotionally. They need to understand what is happening, what they are feeling and how to work with their emotions in a more positive way.  I propose that instead of calling the technique, “time-outs”, we should replace the term with, “help-time.” If you are sitting at a holiday dinner and your child is racing around the room, she may be bored or is looking for attention because all the adults are busy conversing. Here's how to provide your child with the “help-time” she needs:

Talk about what is happening. For example, you can say, “You're running around and you seem very upset. You need some help-time.”

Set a limit. Tell your child, “You can't run around the dinner table because it disturbs everyone, but we can talk about how to help you.”

Get to the bottom of the issue by acknowledging his feelings. “It's hard for children to sit at a long family dinner. The grown-ups are talking to each other and you may feel left out and angry.” In this way you help him to connect his actions to his emotions and the situation. This linkage helps him to build an understanding of himself and apply this knowledge to other situations.

Teach her to express her emotions in words, and give her some exact phrases to use. For example, you can tell her, “When you feel left out say, 'I feel left out.'”  If she can verbalize her feelings, she won't need to act them out. In this way, you also convey that her emotions are acceptable and you empower her to get what she needs. Verbalizing emotions is the most helpful way for an individual to work through a crisis.

Work out some positive solutions to the situation. For example, you might suggest, “Here's some paper and crayons to keep you busy at the table”, or “Would you like to play with your trains in the other room?” You can even draw some attention to your child by suggesting that he tell the family about his class trip to a fire house.

It is crucial to resolve tricky situations with your child, by giving her a tool to use for the next time. In this way, you educate her how to handle her emotions and behavior most effectively. Keep in mind, however, that it will take much repetition and time for her to internalize these methods and make better behavioral choices.

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