The Problem with Time Outs

The parent of a two year-old recently asked me about time out.  Her baby-sitter uses time out with all the children, but this parent wasn’t sure about it.  Does time out work? What’s the right age to start?

The answer is that there is helpful time out and unhelpful time out.

Unhelpful time out is the modern version of “Go stick your nose in the corner.” This is the kind of time out where a child must go to a time out chair or room and stay there until an adult allows him to get up. This kind of time out is a punishment with several pitfalls:

  • Like all punishments, time out is apt to make a child feel resentful, to teach him to avoid getting caught misbehaving, but not necessarily to behave better.
  • Time out communicates to a child that you are angry, but doesn’t teach her what to do instead of her misbehavior. Children only learns “what to do instead” when a loving adult gently helps them practice the alternative behavior, and you don’t get practice sitting in a chair by yourself.
  • In a group of children, being sent to time out labels a child as “bad” in front of the other children.
  • Some children won’t stay in time out, and adults have to force them, adding to the frustration and the power struggle.
  • The same kids often get sent to time out repeatedly for the same misbehavior, which should show adults that it’s not helping those kids.

I don’t believe there’s ever a right time to begin this kind of time out, and certainly not with a mistake-prone toddler.

So what is helpful time out? 

A helpful time out is time out from a stressful situation.

A child who’s out of control needs time out to regain control. This kind of time out can be provided gently, and might be spent in a crib, a parent’s arms, in a quiet place with a book and a blanket, a song, nursing, or a bottle; whatever is most helpful to your child. 

Taking time out to calm down removes a child from a situation she’s lost the ability to deal with, and teaches her (eventually) how to step back and get “centered” when she loses control.  I model this kind of time out for my children when I say, “Mom’s too angry.  I need a rest to quiet down!” as I take a quick walk into the next room for a few deep breaths before I return able to speak more calmly.  The message with this kind of time out is that we all need time away when we’re too upset, that the time away should be pleasant and help us get ready to go back and play some more.

This kind of time out starts when we take an overstimulated infant from a busy room, continues as we gently hold a toddler until her tantrum ceases, builds as we tell a preschooler she needs a hug and a few minutes away before she returns to work out a problem with her friend. Hopefully, it concludes with an adult parent who knows how to count to ten when she’s too angry to face her own child constructively.

by Justine Saffir

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