Timeouts have long held a place in the modern parent’s toolkit as an acceptable alternative to smacking.
For decades, the practice of timeout has been widely supported by psychologists, paediatricians and educators as an effective behaviour modification intervention and is still used widely in schools, early childhood learning centres and other childhood services.
However, just like physical punishment before it, timeouts have come under harsh criticism as research now suggests that it is not actually a harmless discipline strategy after all.
The premise of a timeout is that upon unacceptable behaviour a child is sent to “timeout” in a designated space, such as a bedroom, hallway or step. The child is to stay in timeout for a period set by the parents to calm down and reflect on their behaviour. At the end of timeout, carers discuss the inappropriate behaviour vs the desired behaviour with the child.
However, while timeouts may have short-term results, research shows that they are ineffective in teaching children about acceptable behaviour in the long term. This is because the child’s brain is not yet developed enough to be able to manage the self-regulation and modulation we expect from them to have “learnt their lesson”
Another major criticism of timeouts is the use of isolation as a punishment. This withdrawal of parental affection has been associated with negative mental health outcomes such as anxiety, depression, feelings of shame, low self-esteem and inability to self-regulate. In fact, MRI research has shown the isolation of a child triggers the same reaction in their brain as physical pain. Over time this can actually change the structure of the brain.
Timeout can also lead to power struggles as kids can fight their seclusion, act out or even be destructive while in timeout. This is as a result of the child’s anxiety, anger or shame at being isolated. This is particularly true if timeouts are used frequently and for extended periods of time.
If not timeout, then what?
Psychologists recommend “time in” with your child when they are exhibit undesirable behaviours. This means getting down on the child’s level, trying to connect with them and, after a hug and they have calmed down, talk to them about their behaviour and what would be an acceptable alternative.
Maintaining your connection with your child – rather than pushing them away as timeouts do – is the key to getting children to understand the negative implications of their behaviour and what they should be doing instead.
While it can be hard at times, staying calm and loving in the face of undesirable behaviour helps your child settle more quickly as they see the adult in the situation is maintaining control.
If you need to use timeout to get a break from the situation, use it on yourself to step away and take some time to regroup so that you can then model self-regulation and calm behaviour for your child.