The pitfalls of using time out

Time out is a popular approach that many parenting experts still advocate.  But more and more parents are realizing that it goes against their better instincts.  They know that children tend to pick up and reflect back our image of them, so it makes sense that treating them like a “naughty boy and girl”, will make them feel like a naughty child and hence act accordingly.

Children learn more through our modelling than our words, so when we force a child to stay in one place for an allotted time while ignoring or isolating them, they learn by example that rejection of another person including refusal to respond or make eye contact is an appropriate way to deal with a problem with another person.

Painful feelings are at the core of negative behaviours.  Contrary to what parents hope, because the child in time out feels so upset and rejected by their parent, they’re usually feeling too many negative feelings about themselves, their parent or both, to be able to think clearly about what might have worked better.  I often advise a parent to ask their child how it feels in a way that makes it safe for them to be honest.  The answer is often heart-melting resulting in a renewed commitment to practice peaceful parenting.

Their thinking is much more likely to be fuelled by their hurt feelings and perhaps a desire to not get caught next time, or to rebel, as it’s human nature to resist being controlled and especially strong-willed children can’t resist the challenge of trying to regain their power in other ways.

Children benefit from their parent’s reflection of the effects of their behaviour and need help thinking about what might have worked better, or what they might do in the future.  But this feedback and guidance can be a difficult pill to swallow for children, just as it is for adults.

Children listen better when they feel heard.  Children who receive reflection, feedback and guidance while also being given the message that their parent is genuinely interested in respectfully listening to their perspective, their thoughts, feelings and needs are much more willing participants in the process of learning healthy social skills.

Even when the child’s expression is an angry retort, this is still their expression of raw feelings that need to be heard and cared for.  The child is always a good child, doing their best to attempt to meet their needs for connection, learning and loving guidance.  When parents become overcome with their own frustrations and powerlessness, they can easily shut their child down as they attempt to stop the unwanted behaviour.  Parenting requires a lot of skill and many parents need to learn effective communication and connection skills.  Greater skills result in greater confidence, which results in being able to maintain a mature level and respectful tone even when expressing limits or dealing with a child’s aggression.

It’s very hard for children to actually self-regulate or self-soothe in stressful situations without their parent’s support..  Children are biologically driven to stay in close proximity to others, so being isolated, especially while they feel emotional rejection, even for a couple of minutes can feel very scary and is just a lot for them to cope with.  It’s beyond what they’re developmentally ready for as their prefrontal cortex, the part of their brain that is responsible for applying reason, problem-solving and empathy, is still developing.  When children are expected to deal with their own feelings without an adult’s empathy and guidance, they’re being expected to do something that they just can’t yet do.  Even when the child appears to have calmed down, they’re often still stressed and it doesn’t take long before the next conflict or meltdown.

Because the lack of empathy for their struggles is difficult for a child to deal with, especially if isolated as well as not helped, they’re more likely to dissociate (cut off and repress) from those feelings, which begins a habit of numbing uncomfortable emotions which works against the healthy development of love, empathy and emotional and social intelligence.

Children need help working through their feelings rather than being put in the position of having to bottle up and shut down their feelings to gain acceptance and support again from their parent/caregiver.

Our unacceptance of their feelings eats away at their self-esteem.  Children who are rejected, scorned or ignored when their behaviour is unacceptable to receive the message that their feelings are unacceptable, that they are unacceptable.  Parents often tell the child that it’s the behaviour that that’s unacceptable and that they still love their child, but this message is nearly impossible for a child to receive while being rejected.  Actions do speak louder than words.

Teenagers take on the role of putting themselves in time out.  The child who is sent to their room or otherwise put in time out tends to become the teenager who locks themselves away in their room for hours on end when they’re not feeling happy and breezy, they’ve learned that there isn’t a place for their hurt and angry feelings in the family.

Worse still they’ve internalized their parent’s rejection and unacceptance of their feelings and then as teens find it very difficult to maintain their self-esteem when they have painful mixed up feelings.  The child who felt rejected when they had big difficult feelings when young learned to dislike themselves when they have difficult feelings as tweens and teens, which could make them susceptible to seeking pain relief in unhealthy ways like alcohol or drug use.

Those whose feelings have been listened to even when they’ve made mistakes or acted out are more likely to feel deserving of seeking a listening ear, seeking guidance and seeking support when things are tough.  They are more likely to view their problems as just that, problems that need to be solved, rather than further evidence of there being something wrong with them.

Children’s behaviour is driven by their feelings, not their thinking.  Children who can trust that their whole range of feelings and behaviours will be met with love, care and guidance generally have much lower stress levels, hence their behaviour tends to be more in balance.

Most of the behaviour that parent’s find unacceptable is the result of the child either having unmet needs that haven’t yet been identified (perhaps tired, hungry, overstimulated), needing more information (another need – usually a calm discussion to help them better understand the situation), or feeling big difficult feelings that they haven’t yet learned how to manage (another need – usually for empathy, connection and understanding).  Perhaps they’re jealous so they hurt the baby.  They’re angry, so they throw and break something.  A child who hurts the baby or purposely throws something to break it is already showing the signs that they have a backlog of hurt feelings.

Sending a child to their room gives them more of these difficult feelings to deal with without helping them get any of the backlogs of hurt feelings out.  Children who act defiantly or aggressively are crying out for relief, crying out for help to feel better about themselves again.

What should I do when my child is acting out? Read the links below to find out what does work?  The parent who commits to not using punishments tends to start wondering about what the alternatives are.  Valuable questions which can lead to important learning.

Written by Genevieve Simperingham, mother of two children, parent educator, aware parenting instructor, parent coach, psychsynthesis counsellor, writer and group facilitator.  Genevieve has been running courses and workshops and a private counselling and parent coaching practice with adults for nearly 20 years.


You might also like to read Expressing limits assertively, but non-aggressively

You can expect more cooperation when you eliminate the threat of consequences

Aggression – why children lash out and what to do

The disadvantages of time out by Aletha Solter PhD

Genevieve Simperingham is a Psychosynthesis Counsellor, a Parenting Instructor and coach, public speaker, human rights advocate, writer and the founder of The Peaceful Parent Institute.  Check out her articles, Peaceful Parenting eCourses, forums and one-year Peaceful Parenting Instructor Training through this website or join over 90,000 followers on her Facebook page The Way of the Peaceful Parent.

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