Parenting Tips > Raise a Self-Disciplined Child

What's Wrong with Timeouts?

Parenting "experts" these days are united in their opposition to physical punishment, which research repeatedly shows hinders kids' moral and emotional (and maybe even intellectual) development. (If you have questions about this, please see this article on spanking.) But of course, that leaves the very real question of how parents can guide a two, three or four year old, who may have no interest in following our rules!

Most experts advise parents to use Timeouts. But any child can explain to you that timeouts ARE punishment, not any different than when you were made to stand in the corner as a child.  And any time you punish a child, you make him feel worse about himself.  So timeouts don't necessarily improve behavior. And with many kids, they just incide power struggles and rebellion.

What’s wrong with Timeouts? 

On the surface, Timeouts seem sensible. They're non-violent but still get the child's attention.  Plus, they give the parent and child a much-needed break from each other while emotions run high.

And it’s true that timeouts are infinitely better than hitting -- and also better than yelling. But Timeouts teach the wrong lessons, and they don’t work to create better behaved children.  In fact, they tend to worsen kids' behavior. Why?

1. Timeouts make kids see themselves as bad people.  You confirm what she suspected – she is a bad person. Not only does this lower self esteem, it creates bad behavior, because people who feel bad about themselves behave badly. 

As Otto Weininger, Ph.D. author of Time-In Parenting says:
“Sending children away to get control of their anger perpetuates the feeling of 'badness" inside them...Chances are they were already feeling not very good about themselves before the outburst and the isolation just serves to confirm in their own minds that they were right.”

2. Timeouts don't help kids learn emotional regulation.  The fastest way to teach kids to calm themselves is to provide a “holding environment” for the child, giving him the message that his out of control feelings are acceptable and can be regulated. When you send him off to his room by himself, he'll calm down eventually -- but he's no closer to learning to manage those emotions next time.
 
3. Timeout work through fear, as a symbolic abandonment.  Banishing an upset child is pushing him away just when he needs you the most. Worst of all, instead of helping him to calm down, it triggers his innate fear of abandonment.  If gives him the message that only his “pleasant” feelings are ok, that his authentic, messy, difficult feelings – part of who we all are – are unacceptable and unlovable.

4. Instead of reaffirming your relationship with your child so she WANTS to please you, timeouts fuel power struggles.
  The child loses face and has plenty of time to sit around fantasizing revenge.  (Did you really think she was resolving to be a better person?)

5. Timeouts, like all punishment, keep us from partnering with our child to find solutions since we're making the problem all theirs.  That makes us less likely to see things from our child's perspective.  It weakens our bond with our child. Unfortunately, that bond is the only reason children behave to begin with. So parents who use timeouts often find themselves in a cycle of escalating misbehavior.

So timeouts, while infinitely better than hitting, are just another version of punishment by banishment and humiliation. To the degree that Timeouts are seen as punishment by kids – and they always are -- they are not as effective as positive discipline to encourage good behavior.  

So if you’re using them as punishment for transgressions, that’s a signal that you need to come up with a more effective strategy.  (see Why Positive Discipline, and Handling Your Own Anger.)

And if you’re using them to deal with your kids’ meltdown, that’s actually destructive, as I mentioned, because you’re triggering your child’s abandonment panic.

If you want to teach your child emotional self-management, that’s only effective before a meltdown starts.  When you see the warning signs, take your child to a "Time IN."  This signals to your child that you understand she's got some big emotions going on and you're right there with her.  If she's just a bit wound-up and wants to snuggle or even read a book, fine.  If she's ready for a melt-down, you're there to help.  Just let her know you're there and she's safe.

Once the meltdown starts and your child is swept with emotion, it’s too late for teaching.  Don't try to talk or negotiate or convince him of anything; he's in "fight or flight" emergency mode and the thinking parts of his brain aren't working right now. Just stay nearby so you don’t trigger his abandonment panic, and stay calm. Don’t give in to whatever caused the meltdown, but offer your total loving attention.  Tell him he's safe.  Be ready to reassure him of your love once he calms down.

I want to add that Timeouts are a terrific management technique for keeping your own emotions regulated.  When you find yourself losing it, take five.  This keeps you from doing anything you’ll be sorry about later.  It models wonderful self-management for your kids. And it ultimately makes your discipline more effective because you aren’t making threats you won’t carry out.

Parents who use timeouts are often shocked to learn that there are families who never hit, never use timeouts, and rarely raise their voices to their children.  But you shouldn’t need to use these methods of discipline, and if you're using them now, you'll probably be quite relieved to hear that you can wean yourself away from them. 

Check out the section on this website called How to Use Positive Discipline for more specifics. And remember, this too shall pass!