Time Out Backlash

Is time out emotionally harmful to children?


My toddler recently reached the "terrible two's" stage. That means that at any given moment, he could potentially bite, kick, scream, or throw an epic temper tantrum. We can't very well have a 36 inch tyrant running the show around our house, so it's obvious that it's time to enforce some form of discipline on our adorable yet unruly child.

Since we decided long ago that we would not our children or use fear tactics in our parenting, we settled on using "time outs" as punishment for tyrant-like behavior. It's a simple plan, made popular by the show Supernanny, in which a child is removed from the situation, placed in isolation, and given time to think about what he or she did wrong. The rule of thumb tends to be that the child remains there one minute per year of age.

We've added the additional step of offering a big hug when he is released from the "naughty chair" and then having a discussion about what positive behavior we expect to see in the future. So far, it's worked out great, and we are seeing changes in our little guy's attitude.

So, I was taken of guard when I read an article recently on the Natural Parents Network that highlighted the disadvantages of time outs. According to the article, parents who enforce a time out are actually bullying their child, and it's an ineffective way to discipline children.

"Most children will go through multiple emotions – fear that they are not loved because of their behavior; anger at the situation and the person responsible for sending them to time-out or at the other person involved in the original situation; blame, anxiety or confusion if the child doesn’t understand what is going on. They learn that by bullying someone holding less power than you, you can get your own way."

The post delves even deeper into this theory by linking to Aletha Solter's article that was published by the Aware Parenting Instute. Solter takes the perspective a step farther and claims that time outs are actually an emotionally harmful way to discipline children, and that that there are hidden problems with the technique.

She believes that children may learn to suppress their feelings and that teaching children to conform to our wishes does not resolve the deeper issues. She argues that children are most in need of loving attention when they are least deserving of it. She even challenges parents to not use any form of punishment on their children but instead to have an open dialogue with the child about his or her behavior.

It is not necessary to isolate children and withdraw our love to teach them how to "behave." In fact, it is entirely possible to help children learn to be cooperative and decent members of society without ever issuing punishments, rewards, or artificial consequences of any kind.

Although I am intrigued by this concept, I'm not sure I agree a time out is emotionally harmful to a child. Especially if it is enforced with guidance and understanding.

I also question the message I would send if I were to take a moment to single my toddler out, sit him in my lap, and have an in-depth conversation with him about what he did wrong in the midst of a two-year old fit. Would it teach him that he will get my undivided attention when he misbehaves?

Sometimes, when their little hands are swinging and the tears are freely falling, a little space to calm down can be healthy for a child. We are always close by with loving arms and open discussions. We just offer that support after the time out is over.

Do you use time out as a from of discilpline? Do you believe that it is emotionally damaging to children? If not, what form of discipline works for you? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Rebecca McCarthy (Editor) February 29, 2012 at 05:29 PM
I'm afraid I don't always have the calm demeanor of those who can cuddle a child and explain his or her inappropriate behavior while it is happening. When my child is melting down, I want her to enjoy it by herself. And sometimes, I even put myself in time out if I need to take a deep breath and relax.
Leigh Hewett February 29, 2012 at 05:37 PM
Honestly, I have had to take a time out or two myself as well. I agree with you on that one! When emotions are high, a little space can be a gift.
Becky February 29, 2012 at 06:54 PM
I think each child is different and some children respond better to time out than others. I have put my self in time out countless times since my son became mobile 2 years ago! My daughter is fiercely independent and never minded time out. She'd sing or recite a story and entertain herself in the corner so it did not modify behavior. But then she rarely had behavior that needed more than an explanation, so for her discussion worked. But then there's my son. Perseverance is his middle name. He will not stop doing a behavior without intervention and a negative consequence and even then it often takes several reminders. I think time out has saved his life numerous times - both from dangerous behavior and exasperated parents.
Erin Lashley February 29, 2012 at 07:23 PM
I think time out is one of the best ways to get the message over to a young/emotionally immature child that they need to correct their behavior. Maybe with a very intelligent child you could use reasoning for behavior modification some of the time, but it still comes down to emotional maturity. Kids in the toddler years just aren't supposed to be able to understand the reasoning behind why you don't want them to do something; that's not the way stages of development work. I will admit that time out is just one tool, because there's also redirection, charting, and even, as Aletha Solter's article says, sometimes holding works. But time out is a great tool, and think of how its wide use has nearly eradicated corporal punishment in America. Sorry to use a slippery slope argument, but I hate to think of the adult that will result from a child who doesn't realize that negative actions have negative consequences. I don't want to be rude about Solter's article, because, being a PhD, it's her job to publish papers about theories, but that's all such an article is, a description of a theory.
Mike Huff February 29, 2012 at 07:57 PM
I accidentally flagged a comment with my fat thumb. Sorry! As far as the article goes, at some point the children will realize there are no consequences in life. Be parent and stop with the wamby pamby crap. : )
Jesse February 29, 2012 at 10:41 PM
In a traditional "time out" parents rarely offer hugs and guidance after the kids get out of time out. Most parents just withdraw attention and then send them on their way. Without the follow through or positive reinforcement afterwards, I could see how it could be ineffective. I wouldn't go so far as saying that it's emotionally damaging though. We have a peaceful place for my children to go to calm down when they act up but they can choose when to come out. It's not punishment, just a place to get back in balance.
Linda Labbo February 29, 2012 at 11:01 PM
Ahh.. here's the flaw in the argument: "It is not necessary to isolate children and withdraw our love to teach them how to "behave." To discipline a child is not an act of withdrawing love.. on the contrary it's an act of displaying love. The key is that discipline and time outs shouldn't be born of frustration or anger, but from a mature desire to help our kids learn lessons about the consequences of harmful decisions they have made within the safe space of home. Parents who discipline hope those lessons have been learned in ways that will help their kiddos make informed decisions out in the "real world". Thanks for a thought provoking article, Leigh.
Mandy @ Living Peacefully with Children March 01, 2012 at 12:31 AM
A lack of time out does not equate raising children who do not understand consequences. We are a consensually living family and do not use punishments nor rewards. We talk to our children about how behavior affects other people and themselves. We discuss options about how to make things better when something does occur and how a situation may have been handled better so that they may learn from the situation. With young children specifically, we show them how we would like them to treat others and help them to do so. Regardless of age, we look for the underlying needs of the behavior and work with our children in order to meet everyone's needs in a respectful manner. Traditional time-outs tell children that the behavior is not desired by the parent, but it does nothing to address the underlying issues or help the children come up with better ways to address the situation. There is quite a bit of research concerning the use of punishments and rewards with children. B.F. Skinner, sometimes referred to as the father of behavior modification, stated that the use of behavior modification techniques through the use of punishment and rewards was not a desirable parenting technique. Long before Alfie Kohn and Aletha Solter, Haim Ginott and Thomas Gordon worked with this line of research and had their own publications. For more information I recommend the books Parent Effectiveness Training and Between Parent and Child.
Leigh Hewett March 01, 2012 at 12:38 AM
Thanks for the recommendation. I will check out both of these books as I'm rather intrigued by this parenting philosophy.
Leigh Hewett March 01, 2012 at 12:39 AM
I hope to hear from more parents who use different different forms of discipline or practice gentle parenting.
Leigh Hewett March 01, 2012 at 12:40 AM
It's so true that each kid is different. Sometimes I feel like I have to be two different moms for each of my children.
Scarlet Buckley March 01, 2012 at 01:53 AM
Definitely an interesting topic, Leigh! I love the idea of discussion based discipline. We practice a lot of talking things out in our family, and we have famliy meetings to help us work out issues, but I have felt like some behaviors needed the extra "time out" to get the point across. I tend to try to let the natural consequnces speak for themselves and when a behavior is repeated and causing problems for the whole family we give consequences, but they are always logical. And i agree with what some of you have said about discipline techniques depending on the child. I have a very reasonable son who really takes to heart what we say and how we feel. And I have a very strong willed little girl who is almost 3 and loves to do the opposite of what we ask. She is dramatic and playful and seems to be less concerned about how her actions impact the house. My son, at 2, was sensitve to how we felt; she is not. So I'd love to hear some suggestions from people who parent without punishments or behavior modification plans about how to navigate the throwing of beads all over the floor, giggling and unwilling to clean them up with you. How do you move on? Who cleans up the mess? (I'm not being argumentative--looking for ideas) And also, does it set the kids up for upset and confusion if they go to school where they will be met with external consequences for behavior?
Mandy Smith March 01, 2012 at 02:22 AM
Great article. Time outs and discussion have worked well for us. We can explain why behavior is unacceptable, once the situation is diffused, and that helps. Every kid is different. My son is too much like me. I have to understand the "why" behind every rule before I will comply or the message sinks in. I think you have to find what works. With that said, I don't think the do nothing plan works for most. I knew someone who decided to follow that plan. They also read something that said you aren't ever to tell a child "no" because it impacts their creativity. The result was worse than any tantrum I had ever seen. The child would behave worse. The pediatrician told them to "ignore the behavior to send a sign that it isn't effective" to the child. The problem with that logic is that we are talking about a child. I am not sure they are ready to process the parents reaction and apply logic. Then, when the negative behavior was ignored, the child would act out more to get attention....biting mom, slapping mom, etc. They started using time outs and the bahavior improved. I am not sure there is one perfect approach. Maybe there are just certain guidelines, but every approach should be as unique as the child. Great leaders take different approaches with different employees based on the employees development level and prefered communication style. Perhaps we try the same with the kids we love?
Mandy Smith March 01, 2012 at 02:23 AM
Sorry my post was so long...on another note....thank you for these great articles! I love them!
Mandy Smith March 01, 2012 at 02:30 AM
One last thing...Dan Pink wrote a book called Drive. Here is a link to his TED Talk tht is a very brief overview of his book. It changed the way I parent! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y
Ryan Griffin March 01, 2012 at 02:58 AM
I understand the gentle parenting philosophy ~ support anyone who wants to try to institute it ~ but for me, establishing myself as the leader was paramount. Time out was very effective. I have 2 children, now ages 13 and almost 9, and our household is exceptionally harmonious. Harmony in our group was established by using reasoning, discussions, explanations, and also consequences levied by me. Now that they are 13 and 8, they rarely need consequences. Maybe once every few months? Tonight my daughter continued giving my son horseback riding lessons. They both attend one another's sporting and academic events, both participate in household chores, and we get outside every day. TV is kept to a bare minimum. I think the program is more important than the specifics on discipline issues, as long as discipline is consistent and caregivers are constant during the early years. We also emphasize verbal interaction in our home and when we are outdoors, books, and creative thinking. During those times of emotional fits and physical aggression (the twos mostly), time out was a great consequence. I also model counting to 10, taking deep breaths, and talking it out if I am angry.
Ryan Griffin March 01, 2012 at 03:01 AM
All this deep thought about the negative feelings that come from time outs ~ I have to say that I think a strong program, attachment parenting, and frequent interactions with your children completely overshadow the negative feelings that come from consequences and act (positively) as deterrents for inappropriate behavior. In fact, I think time out teaches that if your emotions are unmanageable, you leave the group until you calm down. This is also a positive behavior pattern.
Becky March 01, 2012 at 12:01 PM
And different mom to the same kid on different days... they change the rules often!
Becky March 01, 2012 at 12:09 PM
I agree, especially with self regulation. My son (2) is not anywhere near as verbal as his sister was at that age and a physical change is necessary to make him aware that a behavioral change is necessary. Throwing and hitting while mad have nearly disappeared since instituting time outs, so he is learning to take them on his own.
Becky March 01, 2012 at 12:26 PM
Another technique I used with my daughter was the "do over". Because she was very verbal I would just have her do the action again a different way.For example, if she went outside without permission I'd have her do it again and ask me if we could go outside. It worked very well for her, but not at all for Mr. Perseverance.
Becky March 01, 2012 at 04:40 PM
Scarlet, I wish I knew the answer! My son sounds a lot like your daughter and I have tried just about everything I can think of with timeout being the most effective, and then only for a day or so before he does it again. On the positive side he behaves well in his half day school and puts things away when asked and genuinely seems to care about the teachers and his classmates.
June March 01, 2012 at 05:36 PM
My daughter is now 11 and in 6th grade. We used timeouts with her and they worked. They worked because she HATED it - even when it was just 2-3 minutes. at the end of the timeout, we always asked her what bad choice/behavior put her there. By the time she had calmed during the timeout, she totally understood. There is wayyyyy too much emphasis on our children's self-esteem and their feelings these days. My daughter is not damaged. Her self-esteem is intact. She KNOWS beyond a shadow of a doubt that we love her and always will. She did like to use manipulation back in those days and say, "You hurt my feelings. You don't love me". I ignored it when it came before she had calmed herself. Once she was calm and done with timeout, she knew she was wrong (and that her manipulation didn't work). I don't see any way that she would have reacted positively to a discipline of sitting in our laps and talking about what happened. She would have thought - "gee, when I do this, Mom sits down with me and we have a little quiet time together". My daughter also knows that we discipline her BECAUSE we love her. When classmates act out at school now, she'll tell me about it when she gets home and she says that particular child made bad choices and wonder why his/her parents don't love him/her enough to discipline at home. I think something has worked. Of course, these pre-teen years and the upcoming teen years are a whole new game with rules set as the situation comes up. ;-)
Leigh Hewett March 01, 2012 at 08:54 PM
I like the idea of a "do over". Maybe my oldest son would respond to that, my second son would just take the second chance to be naughty all over again.
Leigh Hewett March 01, 2012 at 08:55 PM
Thanks, Mandy! I really enjoy writing this column and love to see what kind of thoughtful conversations unfold. Thanks for being part of the discussion.
Leigh Hewett March 01, 2012 at 08:55 PM
I will have to check it out.
Leigh Hewett March 01, 2012 at 08:56 PM
I really respect the honesty of your comment.
Leigh Hewett March 01, 2012 at 08:57 PM
We use redirection often with my oldest and charts as well. He really responds to it.
Leigh Hewett March 01, 2012 at 09:01 PM
I'd like to add that we make it a point to celebrate positive behaviour when we see it happen. I like to really single out when I see my kids sharing or getting along. I just shower them with praise and tell them why it's a good choice and point out how much nicer it is for our family when we do those things. The children just beam and act really proud. They stand a little higher and the peace usually lasts well into the evening.
Count Raoul March 02, 2012 at 05:04 PM
I currently assign myself a self-imposed Time Out each afternoon around 3pm. Some may call it a nap. One minute for each year of age. That's a good hour...yeah, that about does it.
Scarlet Buckley March 03, 2012 at 01:50 AM
I love these comments! Cute and playful! This one's a fun one, Leigh!


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