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Why Time-Outs Need a Time Out

Children respond just as poorly to a time-out as they do to physical punishment.

“Time-out” is a widely implemented reinforcement technique that parents and educators use to discipline children. When Montrose Madison Wolf proposed the method he had intended to provide a non-violent disciplinary tool. His method involved the child receiving adult attention based on his or her “desirable” behavior, the adult withholding attention for “inappropriate” behavior, and the child being punished with social isolation (a time-out) for “unacceptable” behavior.[1] Decades later, this method continues to be popular, yet it is overused and abbreviated to actual or threatened social isolation—a time-out at the parent’s discretion for the child’s misbehavior. Thus, as a time-out, a child may be sent to another room or specified place for a period of time, separated from the parent and other children.

In using time-outs parents unintentionally convey that they are unable to contain their own feelings and cannot tolerate their own negative response—anger, embarrassment, or distress—to the child’s behavior. Rather than resort to physical punishment or verbal aggression, the time-out separates the child from them. The parent can cool off and regain control. The child is supposed to calm down, link his or her behavior to the wrongdoing, and change it. Following the time-out, a parent’s good intention to re-direct the child or help the child gain perspective on his or her behavior may be too late. I'll explain why.

Psychologically, children may respond just as poorly to a time-out as they would to physical punishment. Social isolation and rejection, as with physical punishment, are experienced as shame. Shaming experiences lead children (or adults) to believe their entire self is bad, rather than just their behavior, even when a parent differentiates the child-as-a-person from the child's actions. In order for the child to cope with shame, he or she will typically respond by attacking oneself, attacking others, withdrawal, or avoidance.[2]

Granted, one evolutionary purpose of shame is to maintain the social order. If we never experienced shame, or its derivative, guilt, there would be little else to inhibit our behavior. Nevertheless, in terms of what goes on in the human brain, rejection appears similar to physical pain,[3] and shame is closely tied to the physiological expression of a stress response.[4] There is a growing consensus that chronic exposure to shame and empathic failures on the part of caregivers can result in the child's inability to regulate emotions, and may lead to the development of narcissistic traits as well as shame-based anxiety or depression.[5]

In any situation, re-directing a child in an effort to teach him an appropriate response to what he feels, helping a child use words to describe what he needs, or listening to what the child is trying to convey verbally or through action, promotes learning the tools needed for effective communication later in life. Time-outs teach the child that one should separate oneself from others and from the problem, rather than remain connected and work it out. Even if a parent engages in later conversation, the rejection has occurred and the child has already put a coping mechanism in place in response to the shame it evoked. Furthermore, in the case of time-outs, a parent’s later focus is nearly always on the child’s misbehavior and not on the shame the child felt about being banished.

Discipline is different than punishment. Time-outs are a punishment, along with physical or verbal aggression, or taking away something dear to the child. Discipline involves limit-setting and correction using re-direction along with remaining close to the child. Discipline guides and teaches the child to develop self-control by clarifying what was wrong and offering alternatives to the child’s behavior: teaching, guiding and explaining what was wrong and what to do instead.[6] Most important is that discipline maintains a tie to the caregiver, rather than separates the child from them. We learn through our connection with significant others in our life, and through this connection our value is recognized along with the appraisal and understanding of behavior that negatively impacts the other. Do we want children to learn how to talk out their intensely felt emotions or would we rather teach them to isolate themselves or reject others when inevitable interpersonal conflict occurs?

Although many U.S. states and other countries do not outlaw the physical (corporal) punishment of children, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychoanalytic Association have issued position statements urging it be banned.[7] Perhaps it is time to do the same for time-outs.

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[1] See for example, Sibley, S.; Abbott, M.; & Cooper, B. (1969). Modification of the classroom behavior of a disadvantaged kindergarten boy by social reinforcement and isolation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 7, 203-219.

[2] See Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride. Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.

[3] Schore, A. (2012). The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Norton.

[4] Siegel, D. & Bryson, T. (2014). No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. New York: Bantam.

[5] See Hockenberry, M.S. (1995). Dyadic violence, shame, and narcissism. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 31, 301-330; Lansky, M. (2003). The “Incompatible Idea” Revisited: The oft-invisible ego-ideal and shame dynamics, American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 63, 365-376; Morrison, A. (1989). Shame: The Underside of Narcissism. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

[6] See Gundersen National child protection training center.…

[7] See American Academy of Pediatrics – Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (1998). Guidance for Effective Discipline. Pediatrics 101: 723-728.